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"Global": An essay by Yoko Arisaka (Keywords: History of Philosophy; The Canon; Language; Eurocentrism)

White house on hill

From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 4 ("The New Basics: Philosophy").

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The term “global” refers to several ideas in philosophy. Methodologically, it commonly means “including non-Western philosophies”; in addition to Asian philosophies (which have already been established to some degree as examples of “non-Western philosophies” for years), “global philosophy” often includes African, Latin-American, Arabic, and various traditions of Indigenous philosophies. Different regional philosophies may offer radically different ways of understanding cosmology, the human, and the world, as well as codes of ethics, society, and politics. On the other hand, “global” can also refer to human capacities and characteristics that are understood to be “universal”; they may find different philosophical expressions, but these are culturally particular (and thereby interesting) ways of understanding the human. Some philosophers prefer the term “world” to “global”, both in order to avoid the trendiness and business-like ring of the term “global” and to emphasize the “common world” in which we live.


The particular version of the history of philosophy that we are familiar with – namely that philosophy began with the pre-Socratics and Greek philosophy through Western history to the present – is in fact a particular post-19th century construction arising out of the German tradition and establishing itself as the canonical Eurocentric history of philosophy. Prior to this, philosophy in Europe included Indian, Chinese, Chaldean, Arabic, and other non-European philosophies as legitimate parts of the discipline. What happened during the late 18th and early 19th century was that our familiar, Eurocentric conception of philosophy was created. Our non-global conception of philosophy is rather a latecomer, while still establishing itself as the history of philosophy. 


As we have seen, though, the term “global” is not just one thing. It can also be used to critique the transnational-capitalist, neo-colonial, and neo-imperialistic world order defined by the North (in particular the U.S. and Europe). While traditional comparative philosophies have focused primarily on the “East-West” comparison and have remained relatively non-political, global philosophies that include the South (Africa, Latin America, South and South-East Asia, and Oceania) often incorporate anti-racist and decolonial philosophies that engage and critique the Eurocentric models of philosophy and its hegemonic discourses. In this context, global philosophies can include critiques of various exclusionary mechanisms in Eurocentric philosophies, whether related to women, races, oral traditions, and more besides.  


There is a paradox here. On the one hand, what is “global” is supposed to transcend the “Eurocentric” in order to conceptualize a world in which there are multiple centres. Yet, on the other hand, this very framework of “what is global” itself appears to be a part of the extension of the imperialistic imaginary. The “objects” of global thinking, such as the people and ways of life and thought in the South (a category that is itself created by the North), are often so “local” that the subjects (such as women in rural areas) barely think of themselves in terms of globality at all.   




How, then, did this shift away from global philosophy in the 19th century come about? One of the reasons is that before this time, while there had been records of various philosophical traditions from various parts of the world, there was no systematic conception of a “history of philosophy”. It was only in the latter part of the 18th century and the early part of the 19th century that intellectual communities began to develop a historical narrative which established the history of Western/European philosophy as we know it today. This process took place mostly among the German-speaking regions, with the first such books written either in German or in Latin. Through this process, philosophy actually became Eurocentric; global elements that were standard parts of philosophy before this time came to be excluded.


The grounds for this exclusion were threefold: first, universities in Germany at this time were in the process of establishing various specialized faculties or departments. Philosophy became distinct from theology and other related fields, such as history and philology. A second reason had to do with philosophy’s desired self-conception as a “scientific” discipline. Philosophies which did not meet the criteria of objectivity, rationality, and systematic presentation were deemed “not-philosophy” and relegated to other disciplines, such as theology and philology. Finally, and perhaps most decisively, philosophy came to adopt the increasingly common   colonial and racist view that non-European cultures either had nothing important intellectually to offer, or that they had to become civilized by European intervention and education in order to be able to emerge as intellectually productive.

Philosophy came to adopt the increasingly common   colonial and racist view that non-European cultures either had nothing important intellectually to offer


For instance, in Friedrich Ueberweg’s influential work, Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie von Thales bis auf die Gegenwart (Outline of the History of Philosophy from Thales to the Present, 1863), he notes that, “the so-called philosophy of the Orientals lacks the tendency for strict proofs and therefore lacks scientific character…The elements are melted together with religious views”. Endless influential variations on this theme came to establish the superiority of European and white civilization (this is especially notable in the work of philosophers such as Kant and Hegel), such that philosophy came to be non-global and Eurocentric, remaining so until the late 20th century. 


It was only at the beginning of the 20th century in Europe that the first tentative attempts to recover the global emerged. Amongst the earliest of these was Wilhelm Wundt’s edited volume, Allgemeine Geschichte der Philosophie (General History of Philosophy,1909), which contained Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and Islamic philosophies in addition to the European histories of philosophies. Global or “world” philosophies in English only appeared for the first time in 1963 with the publication of the first volume of John C. Plott’s five-volume Global History of Philosophy. Despite its relatively later arrival, anthologies with the words “global” or “world” in the title are far more numerous in English, with at least 23 books and anthologies on the topic to date, than in German, with only 12. 


Outside Europe, the first such book appeared in Japanese in 1902: Keijiro Hoki’s Sekai Shiso no Kato oboyi Shourai (The Past and Future of World Thought). There are currently 18 books in Japanese that deal with global thought, including the recent 9-volume set, Sekai Tetsugaku-shi (World History of Philosophy, 2020), edited by K. Ito, S. Yamauchi, T. Nakajima, and N. Nootomi. There are 10 such books in Chinese, and 8 in Korean.   




So far the meaning of the “global” has focused on different regions of the world. However, one can also organize the presentation of the global in terms of historical periods or thematic contents. For example, The Philosophers’ Library by Adam Ferner and Chris Meyns (2021) organizes the entries in terms of time periods from the ancient times to the present, with each epoch presenting various philosophical traditions from all over the world. In M. Kirloskar-Steinbach and L. Kalmanson’s A Practical Guide to World Philosophies (2021), different world traditions are introduced under the rubric of fundamental meta-philosophical questions, such as “Why World Philosophies?”, “Relational Knowing”, and “Knowledge Claims and Locality”. In a forthcoming edited collection by C. Robbiano and S. Flavel (eds): Key Concepts in World Philosophies, various “core ideas” associated with major Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Islamic, African, Ancient Greek, Indigenous and modern European philosophers are thematically organized. Such ideas include: “How we Acquire Knowledge about Ourselves and Reality”, “How We Cultivate Ourselves and Relate to Others”, and “How We Express Ourselves”.


In these more recent volumes, the assumption is that philosophical thinking is practiced everywhere in the world throughout history, and that universal questions find many different expressions. Philosophy is by no means a unique phenomenon of European history. In this sense, “global” refers to “universal to human beings” beyond regional and historical differences.




But here is a troubling thought: “Thinking about the global” appears to be a preoccupation of those who are already cosmopolitan, whether intellectuals or business people. It is taken for granted that we view or understand the world at large; in fact, this is the horizon under which we think. We are global citizens in some concrete sense. But is this not a privileged mentality of the industrialized nations, such as the US, Europe, or capitalist Asian nations? We “spread ourselves” into the world as if we are the subjects of global action. It is largely still the so-called “North” that defines and determines global commerce, intellectual currency, and dominance. While we may no longer think Eurocentrically when it comes to philosophy, “globality” may have emerged as an extension of the imperialist thinking of the previous centuries. Successful Asian nations have allied with the US and Europe to form an emergent new North that moves beyond the old East-West divide. The global “South” now represents the main source of resistance against the hegemony of the North; in this sense, what is often referred to in the name of “global” – Africa, Latin-America, and South and Southeast Asia, and Indigenous peoples everywhere – is increasingly defined in terms of critiques against the North. The modern world with its “multiple centres” is a liberal myth. 

“Thinking about the global” appears to be a preoccupation of those who are already cosmopolitan, whether intellectuals or business people. 


Taking this thought further, who or what is in fact meant by the “global South”? As we have seen, in the discourse involving the global North-South divide, the “South” often refers to the disenfranchised, subaltern subjects who are most exploited by the global capitalist world order determined by the North. Many are victimized as poor, illiterate, expendable, and so on. But, once again, such representations belong to the intellectual discourses of the North. While forms of exploitation and suffering are an ongoing reality for many in the South, the people of these regions may still lead vibrant, independent, self-sustaining lives, quite oblivious to what the intellectuals in the North are theorizing about (or NGOs are planning). In other words, those supposedly included as the “objects of global thinking” are themselves fully self-regulating subjects who may not think of their concrete world in terms of globality at all. Their lives revolve around the family, the community, the local, and the regional.


In this sense, the notion of the “global” remains to a large degree a regional abstraction belonging to the discourse of the North (and its South in resistance). In order for us to be able to grasp the “global”, we may in fact have to give up the notion of the global and shift our attention to the various concrete practices – languages, cultural practices, expressions, critical relations – that define forms of communications all over the world.

Most of the books mentioned with a historical emphasis are included in the online list found in “Histories of Philosophy in a Global Perspective”.


 Yoko Arisaka is currently a research associate in the Reinhart-Koselleck-Project, “Histories of Philosophy in a Global Perspective”, at the University of Hildesheim, Germany. Her field of research include political philosophy (including philosophy of race and feminism), modern Japanese philosophy, and phenomenology.


From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 4 ("The New Basics: Philosophy").

If you enjoyed reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation.

We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.


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