Globalization and the History of Philosophy

By Schneewind, J. B. | Journal of the History of Ideas, April 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Globalization and the History of Philosophy


Schneewind, J. B., Journal of the History of Ideas


In the latter part of the thirteenth century Marco Polo traveled with his father and uncle to the domains of Kubilai Khan and was received at the court. They explained much about the West, including the role of the Pope. "Thereupon the Great Khan ... sent word to the Pope that he should send up to a hundred men learned in the Christian religion ... and skilled to argue and demonstrate plainly to idolaters ... that their religion is utterly mistaken, ... men able to show by clear reasoning that the Christian religion is better than theirs."1 The Khan's request is if not the first at least a very early effort at deliberate state-sponsored importation of Western philosophy, or philosophical theology, into the East, motivated (if Polo is to be believed) by the thought that the West might have something good that the East was lacking.2

The Moors recovered much of ancient Greek thought, including philosophy, and brought it as well as Islamic philosophy to Spain and eventually to the rest of Europe long before Marco Polo's travels. Thus much of Aristotle got into European universities by way of Islamic scholars. Western universities absorbed Greek and Roman thought into their own curricula, and have been creating replicas of themselves, including their philosophy courses, all over the world since the fifteenth century.3 Serious consideration of Eastern philosophical thought by Western thinkers has gone on at least since Leibniz tried to come to terms with Chinese philosophy.4 If Hegel, like James Mill, was notoriously dismissive of non-European thought, Schopenhauer took it seriously. His acquaintance with Hindu and Buddhist thought began around 1813 and increased as new translations and studies appeared during the 1830s.5 During the second half of the nineteenth century European scholarly interest in the philosophical thought of Asia developed much further. F. Max Müller's interest in Sanskrit writings sprouted as early as 1853 and blossomed into the fifty volumes of Sacred Books of the East (1879-1904). These included many translations from the Chinese made by James Legge, as well as Sanskrit classics, some of which Müller translated himself.6 These and other scholarly endeavors helped move Anglophone interest in non-Western philosophy well beyond the morbid curiosity inspired by Mme Blavatsky and dewy-eyed visions of the wisdom of the East that lured hippies and potheads into quests for bliss in Nepal.7

There is thus nothing new in Western philosophy using global resources. Consequently there is nothing new in principle about scholarship in the history of philosophy concerning itself with philosophy around the globe. Where philosophers have used resources outside their own cultures, historians of philosophy have always had to follow them. The question then is what if anything might be new about working on the history of philosophy in an era of globalization.

Two points must be made at the beginning. First, historians have traced non-Western influence on Western philosophy for almost as long as such influence has been known, though I believe that there has been less work on Western effects on non-Western thought. If something new due to globalization is to occur in the study of the history of philosophy, it will have to do with study of non-Western philosophy that has not influenced Western thought. And there is already a fair amount of that. Second, historians of philosophy must of course always follow after the philosophers whose history they study. We cannot anticipate what philosophy or its history will be like in an age of globalization. The most we might attempt is to consider some problems that future historians may have to face.

What is there, then, about globalization that might pose new questions for historians of philosophy? Some commentators take globalization to center on the growth of capitalism and transnational corporations to positions of world dominance. But the economics of globalization is not what should chiefly concern us. …

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