Esmé L K Partridge argues that if we want to decolonise philosophy, we also need to desecularise it.
In the past decade, we have seen a handful of universities gradually begin to broaden the scope of their Eurocentric philosophy curriculums. Modules on Buddhist metaphysics or Confucian ethics are, at long last, beginning to crop up at so-called ‘traditional’ institutions, although this is still considerably rare; take one look at the University of Cambridge’s list of undergraduate philosophy classes and you will not find a single one outside of the Greek and continental traditions. Though progress is slow and, in cases such as the above, practically non-existent, the sentiment that philosophy must transcend the western academy is becoming evermore pronounced.
Yet, something is still missing. Though certain non-European worldviews are finally being granted entry into philosophy’s exclusive, high-walled territory, others are not. For example, while non-theistic belief systems of Dharmic traditions (particularly, Buddhism and Hinduism) are let in, the ethical and metaphysical disciplines of the world’s religions are kept out. Moreover, where these subjects can be found in academic settings, they tend to be reserved for theology; a separate discipline, and one which is statistically growing evermore unpopular than philosophy. Yet, the two are historically interwoven and, most crucially, deal with almost exactly the same questions: what is the meaning of the universe? How are we to cultivate the good life? Why is it, then, considering their thematic semblance, that an impermeable membrane lies between the two subjects? The answer: the strict criteria of ‘rationality’ that has been enforced by the western academy, that disqualifies matters of the religious and the spiritual from the science of philosophy, and can be traced back to the colonial empire.
Colonial settlements interfered in the native customs of local areas in myriad ways which, especially in light of the Black Lives Matter movement, are now being reflected on more than ever. One aspect of this was the imposition of western worldviews onto non-western ones. In tandem with the rise of Victorian anthropology, colonisers interrogated local belief systems and hastily projected their Abrahamic standards – the regnant criteria for a plausible worldview at the time – unto them, subsequently finding them to be ‘savage’. They did not simply discount them, but sought ruthlessly to strip them of their metaphysical legitimacy. In one account of the Zande people of North Central Africa, for example, the English anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard regards their beliefs as no more than an afflictive ‘physiological condition’. Moreover, the founder of cultural anthropology Sir Edward Burnett Tylor’s model of spiritual evolution ranked the animism found in many Asian religions as base and ‘primitive’, declaring Abrahamic monotheism as the most developed and rational way of perceiving the world. Here we can lucidly see the stark imposition of western standards upon other worldviews, determining which belief systems are to be accepted and which are to be denounced.
With the seventeenth century European enlightenment, however, the standard shifted once again. Now, it was not the Abrahamic outlook that governed the correct way of reasoning, but the ideologies of secularism and empiricism. As is reflected in North American constitutionalism, the narrative of modernity and ‘progress’ became defined by the departure from the religious and the spiritual. Worldviews that concerned abstract concepts or entities became dubbed as ‘irrational’ and subsequently excluded from the pursuit of cultivating ‘the love of wisdom’ that is philosophy by its very definition. In this regard, it became much like modern science as a dogmatic church in itself, dictating and controlling which types of methodologies and theories are treated as axiomatically valid; an idea explored by the English researcher of biology, Rupert Sheldrake, in his seminal work The Science Delusion.
The exiling of religious matters from the intellectual ‘sciences’ is grounded in the particularisms of a group of European males in the 1700s, which had as its one of its central objectives to affirm the cultural superiority of the western world. Religion was robbed of its license to contribute to the pursuit of ‘wisdom’, and it continues to be disrespected as a valid source of philosophical reasoning in virtually all intellectual discourse that goes on outside of theology departments.
In this regard, colonialism – but this time, the colonialism of the mind – still prevails. A philosophy programme almost exclusively consisting of secular worldviews, makes bold assumptions of what philosophy categorically is. The ‘love of wisdom’ that the word philosophy denotes is a vast semantic umbrella, which for virtually every culture outside of the modern west covers a plethora of different disciplines, including what we today might equate with ‘theology’. In the majority of the world’s belief systems, the art of ‘wisdom’ grapples with the existence of deities, spiritual forces and other tenets of the unseen as well as that which is empirically demonstrable.
If we are to maintain that philosophy is a ‘love of wisdom’, then who are we to project one culture’s perception of what ‘wisdom’ entails unto the discipline as a whole? This is exactly what the current university curriculum does. It selectively chooses which branches of ‘philosophy’ are allowed to come into intellectual fruition, while others are neglected, regarded with almost the same discontent that the British colonial empire felt towards non-Abrahamic belief systems. This is not to say that philosophy and theology ought to be homogenised into one subject; after all, there are some substantial methodological differences between the two, and students wishing to specialise in the nuances of a particular belief system should be given the opportunity to do so.
However, ideas of religious and spiritual natures must be allowed back into the philosophical conversation. A student should be just as justified to treat the existence of God as a legitimate premise in their argumentation as a student who might choose to advocate empiricism. By excluding matters of the religious from an otherwise well-rounded philosophy curriculum, institutions not only validate but actively reinforce the European enlightenment’s trademark rejection of the ‘superstitious’. They breed a highly particularised species of secular ‘rationality’, which must be abandoned if we truly want to develop a more inclusive philosophy in the west that is free from its colonial past, and ultimately a new enlightenment fit for the twenty-first century.
Esmé L. K. Partridge is an undergraduate student of Religion with Arabic at SOAS and an author on Islamic philosophy, theology, and the place of religion in modernity.