Since I was in college twenty years ago I have been hearing of a time in the future when America will become majority minority, and it won't be a predominantly white country any more. When will this be exactly? It always felt somewhere in the future, twenty or thirty from now.
Demographically it is still 20-30 years away. But the awareness of that future is now here. I feel it in myself. The refusal I sense within me to listen any longer to only a Eurocentric tradition of philosophy - it is the refusal to let myself be defined by how society has been, and it is the will to claim that society has to reflect who I am, and not the other way around. No more will I cower and hide, thinking I am just a Indian-American who has to adjust into, and be grateful for my place in, the big white world of Abe Lincoln, Clint Eastwood and John Rawls. No. I am also an American, and if the society doesn't reflect the reality of my experiences, then it is not me that has to change, but it is society that has to change. And so it begins. In myself and in the millions of people who have hitherto been happy to just be in America, but who can no longer be happy that way, who can no longer just fit in.
It is sometimes said that academic philosophy has lagged behind the other humanities. That the other humanities have for the last thirty or forty years already started to become open to other cultures and traditions, and that yet, philosophy has remained doggedly unchanged.
I say it is the other way around. Academic philosophy is not lagging behind. Academic philosophy is not confronting something that Literature departments already confronted decades ago. No, because what academic philosophy is confronting is something much more radical than what the Literature departments had to confront. Academic philosophy is the cornerstone of the Eurocentrism of American society. And as it changes, it is a harbinger of the changes to come. It is the last, biggest and deepest foundation of America's claim to be mainly a white country, and the growing pains academic philosophy is starting to go through is but the beginning of the growing pains that America as a whole has to go through.
Imagine academia in America without philosophy. What would such an academia look like? It would be split into the sciences, which lay claim to truth and grasping reality, and the humanities, which lay claim to capturing the diversity of experiences and so which are seen as subjective. But how should we all live together in America? Is there an objective reality about that? In a world without academic philosophy, there is no answer to this question. The sciences are objective but too disconnected from human experiences. The humanities capture the human experience, but seem subjective and unable to find a common truth.
What realm of inquiry is there that can speak to a kind of truth in the realm of human experience, regarding truths of where we as a society came from and where we are going? One option is religion, but in an America full of diverse religions which disagree with each other, no one religion can play that role. Thus without academic philosophy what would be apparent in American society is that there are no social structures which speak to an objective, human truth about how the diversity of Americans can nonetheless live together within a common framework. In the current American secular society, it is academic philosophy which lays claim to the ideals and principles which aim to bring together plurality and unity, diversity and cohesion.
The fact that most Americans are not aware of academic philosophy is compatible with this centrality of academic philosophy to the society. For the effect of academic philosophy on society is indirect. For most secular Americans what plays this unifying, objective role in society is academia. And even if many academics question the value of academic philosophy, nothing is more central to the rhetoric and ideals of a liberal arts education than philosophy. What is the central ideal of the secular society? Each citizen being able to think for themselves, and live as they choose fit, without having to follow any state sanctioned religion. And what does such self-reflection look like? Who are some of the models of that? Enter here some of the philosopher heroes in academia: Socrates, Descartes, Kant.
This is why academic philosophy didn't change forty years ago as the literature and history departments were changing. Because it was taken for granted that the latter departments had to change because they are subjective (literature) or culture bound (history). In a diverse secular society Shakespeare cannot lay claim to being objectively the best author, because literature is clearly not culturally neutral or objective - it is, after all, defined in the first instance by the language it is written in or the culture it is a part of. The more the other humanities "diversified", the more pressure there was on academic philosophy to be immune to such diversification. For, the thought goes, unlike literature or history academic philosophy doesn't have to diversify because it is already universal and objective.
What defined in the 20th century the whiteness of American culture? Religious fundamentalists in American claim it is because Christianity is white, but this can't be what makes America as a secular nation white. If not religion, then is it a science like physics? No, because science has no color, since it doesn't deal in the first instance with people qua people but with atoms and DNA. So what can be (a) more objective than literature and history, but (b) more human focused on physics, and yet (c) not religious based like Christianity? One thing fits the bill: philosophy.
This explains the rise of academic philosophy in Europe and America in the last two centuries. It is not just because of the rise of academia in that time. After all, why should academia teach philosophy to begin with? Why was that seen as so natural and necessary? It is because academic philosophy took over the role of the Church in the new secular society. This is after all what the philosophy heros of the Enlightenment argued against the Church authorities: we can accept the new sciences and the secular, democratic state without falling into social chaos. As secular universities formed to deal with the changes in society, academic philosophy became (at least in theory) the center piece of the universities, for it was philosophy which gave universities the ability to say that universities could provide not just objective, impersonal truth a la physics, but also objective, human level truth a la philosophy. And it is the latter kind of truth that holds the secular society together.
There is one problem with this story: what happens if academic philosophy is seen to not be tracking objective human truths? What if academic philosophy is seen to be pursuing only European philosophy, but not other kinds of philosophy? Then academic philosophy might fall into the status of literature and history, and so seem not "fully" objective after all. And if academic philosophy isn't objective, then the Church's worry of the social chaos of secularism is back on the table. Therefore the felt need for a substitute for the Church kept up the illusion of universality of European philosophy.
This illusion is now crumbling as the demographics of America and Europe change. How can European philosophy lay claim to universality in a classroom in which the majority of students aren't from Europe? Theses are the twin pressures on contemporary academic philosophy: in order to keep up the sense of capturing human truths and so providing a basis for secular society academic philosophy has to seem universal, and yet in order to seem universal it has to keep at bay other philosophical traditions (which can raise hard questions of relativism), and so make it seem as if European philosophy is somehow distinctly universal.
This uneasy balance is possible as long as it is not too obvious that academic philosophy is too focused on European philosophy. But as the demographics in America change, it is starting to seem too obvious.
This is one reason I kept quiet for so long. Because I didn't want blood on my hands. If I spoke up and said that the philosophy I was being taught is not universal, then it raises the question: so if even academic philosophy is not universal, what can bring people in society together? Could anything bring them together? If academic philosophy is treated as just another '"culturally-bound" endeavor which is focused on Europe, then wouldn't society fall into chaos with each group set against each other with nothing objective to truly bind them?
This is the burden academic philosophy has to carry, and which literature or history don't. Literature departments could embrace diversity (as hard as it was to do so) without the worry that in doing so the central objective human truths in the society were thereby going to be jeopardized. In a way, this was the cover of post-modernism: by explicitly saying there is no truth, it defanged the changes happening in the literature departments, as if to say, "don't worry: the fundamental truths our society depends on are not being questioned; just truths about what counts as a good novel or a nice painting." But what happens if the very fundamental objective truths of the society are questioned, and we face the imminent possibility of choas? The humanities departments didn't have to confront this situation because the very "stale" objectivity of the philosophy departments some of them were bemoaning was also providing the cover for the other humanities departments to be as post-modern and irreverent about truth as possible, without feeling that there would be blood on their hands.
But now there is no ignoring the fact that academic philosophy is not universal. We can't just pretend it is just to keep society in order. Pretense doesn't keep the chaos in society at bay; it merely shields one from seeing the choas. The choas is starting. It has begun. The time to see America in terms beyond those of Europe is here. The best way forward is to embrace the coming reality whole-heartedly and to face up squarely to the challenges it brings.