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2010-07-03
Is there an important difference between 'world philosophy' and 'world philosophies'?
I got an e-mail the other day from someone who was curious about whether there is any important difference between the term "World Philosophy" and "World Philosophies." Why might that matter? Different writers use one or the other term, and it seems that they do so for some reason or other. What, then, might that reason be?

Well, how about checking the literature a bit to see if there might be an important difference? Doing (a little bit!) of googling, I found a few helpful bits of information.

For instance, consider David Cooper's "World Philosophies: An Historical Introduction", (Blackwell, 2003), or Ninian Smart's "World Philosophy", (Routledge, 1999). Both are introductions to philosophy that have a world perspective, i.e., they are not filled with discussions of only 'Western' texts or readings. That implies that non-Western starting points are worth paying attention to when doing philosophy. But then we have Robert Solomon's "World Philosophy: A Text with Readings", (McGraw-Hill, 1994) and Gene Blocker's "World Philosophy: An East-West Comparative Introduction to Philosophy", (Prentice-Hall, 1999), both of which intend to do much the same thing. So, at first glance, there would seem to be no big difference in the way the terms are used.

However, digging around a bit more, we see that "World Philosophy" also has another sense. Oliver Leslie Reiser, "World philosophy: a search for synthesis", (Uni of Pittsburgh Press, 1948) and Satyanada, Swami, "World philosophy: a synthetic study", (Uni of Michigan, 1970) suggest that "world philosophy" is not just about recognizing different starting points, but that people engaged in philosophical inquiry are or ought to be aiming at the same ends.

So there seems to be some important difference here. What might it be?

I'm not sure, but the sense I have is that the use of the plural form apparently recognizes that there philosophy as it appears in China, say, is different than in the UK or India, and that these differences are worth paying attention to. It also seems to imply or recognize that there are different philosophical views around the world, each with its own starting points, basic assumptions and world views. All of that suggests the validity of 'standpoint epistemology', or something like MacIntyre's rationality of traditions: that different people in different places and times have different 'local' questions and problems (because their starting points and questions are influenced by their own particular philosophical traditions).

PERHAPS using the term "World Philosophy" also acknowledges these differences but without such a heavy emphasis on something like the rationality of traditions. I have in mind the sort of philosopher who acknowledges contingent differences and social-historical contexts but who also thinks that the task of philosophy is to formulate world views and philosophies that are not tradition dependent.

So I guess, with some sharpening, perhaps the interesting distinction here (if indeed there is one!) might come down to this: the use of the term "world philosophies" (in the context of comparative philosophy, etc) suggests that

(i) there are interestingly different and incompatible (perhaps even incommensurable) philosophical methodologies and views of the nature and goals of philosophical inquiry, which in turn have an effect on the way that people around the world ask and answer philosophical problems

(ii) there is no universal mode of inquiry called 'philosophical inquiry' that all reasonable people the world over will agree to, but rather many different kinds of philosophical inquiry. (This is similar to MacIntyre's view that there is no one conception of 'justice', no one type of 'rationality', etc.)

In contrast, 'World Philosophy' *might* mean only to suggest (i) and remain silent about (ii).

(A view that asserts (i) and ~(ii) might be that philosophical inquiry starts out 'from where we are', and so takes into consideration our different starting points, but that is an objective form of inquiry that all reasonable people, if they are smart enough and talk to each other long enough, would agree about which particular philosophical methodology is correct.)

My hunch, however, is that most people use the terms pretty much synonymously to say something like (i).

What do you all think about this issue?