"Shithole" countries and the history of philosophy

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Even by the miserably low standards of Donald Trump, his recent characterization of numerous African nations and Haiti as "shithole countries" is unusually appalling. But its appallingness may seem to have nothing to do with philosophy, except insofar as moral philosophers have the task of thinking about and warning against racism, prejudice more generally, and even more generally, being a person like Trump.

However I think there is a connection here to the way that we think about the history of philosophy. Trump's remark put me in mind of something I once heard a colleague say about widespread ignorance of philosophy in the Islamic world. It was something along the lines of, "when you think that a culture has no philosophy, you will be less hesitant to use drones to drop bombs on people from that culture." I think the same holds true here. Of course Trump was not consciously thinking, when he called these countries "shitholes," that part of what makes them so shitty is their lack of philosophy. But consider: would he ever make a remark like this about Greece or Italy, no matter how bad the economic situation in southern Europe might get or how many citizens of those countries would become economic migrants? I think not, and the reason is not just that people from those countries are white. It is also that these countries rate high in Europeans' and Americans' notions of world culture. They produced great art, great literature, and yes, great philosophy. Muslim countries by contrast have done nothing for culture, or at least nothing lately, and African countries have never done anything at all - this (false) assumption is one that someone like Trump would consider so obvious that he would never bother to formulate it to himself explicitly.

As you might already have guessed, the point I'm driving towards here is that it is not a merely academic question whether Africa or the Caribbean has produced worthwhile philosophers and philosophical ideas. It's a question that bears on attitudes taken towards the peoples of these same places today. And so there is a (small) role for the historian of philosophy to play, by highlighting the very real philosophical contribution of Africans and people of African heritage, as we'll be doing in the podcast in the coming months (starting in April 2018, according to the current schedule).

Blrp on 15 January 2018

The Africana series seems

The Africana series seems like an odd choice to me. In the main podcast we're following a continuous philosophical tradition no matter where it leads us geographically and culturally. Here instead we'll follow a geographical area and its diaspora no matter where it leads us philosophically? Will we be discussing black American philosophers separated from their white colleagues who we'll reserve for the main series?

In reply to by Blrp

Peter Adamson on 16 January 2018

Well, in general the Africana

Well, in general the Africana episodes are like the Indian episodes, in that we are going way back chronologically (Africana will start with ancient Egypt) and then following a separate narrative. You are definitely right that there is a problem insofar as later Africana intersects/overlaps with more recent European and American philosophy, I mean recent as in from the last few centuries. And I was fretting about that a bit myself, like, if we have covered Fanon or Du Bois in Africana what will I do when I get to the 20th century in the main podcast, just leave them out, or what? However I think that there is a coherent narrative to be told about Africana thought that puts these figures in the context of the diaspora, etc., and besides by the time the main podcast gets to these more recent figures it would be a long, long time from now at the rate I'm going so at least it isn't a short term problem! In the end, if I do ever get to the 19th/20th century I can refer listeners back to the Africana episodes and say something briefer to reintroduce Africana thinkers in the more general context of the original podcast narrative. (Something similar happens in an episode coming along very soon, where we are talking about interactions between India and Islam and touch again on Biruni and Dara Shikoh, who were mentioned in the Islamic world episodes - covering non-western philosophy is inevitably going to produce this kind of crossover.)

In reply to by Blrp

Chike Jeffers on 28 January 2018

To add to Peter's reply,

To add to Peter's reply, there is an important sense in which the answer to your first question - whether we'll be following this region and its diaspora no matter where it leads us philosophically - is no.

Take Kwame Anthony Appiah, an important black philosopher alive and working today. Let's imagine Peter somehow manages to take the original series of episodes all the way up to the very recent explosion of interest in experimental philosophy: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/experimental-philosophy/ ... if so, he might naturally find himself discussing Appiah's 2008 book Experiments in Ethics, in which Appiah provides his take on what empirical psychological research does and does not bring to the pursuit of moral philosophy.

Your question can be interpreted, however, as asking whether we might rather be planning to segregate Appiah by covering his thoughts on experimental philosophy in the Africana podcast, and the answer is no. Appiah will definitely be coming up in the Africana podcast but that's because of things like his classic 1992 book, In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture.

In other words, it is not sufficient for our purposes in the Africana podcast that a philosopher is of African descent (and by that I mean recent descent, since of course arguably all philosophers are of African descent!). What matters is whether they have done work that contributes to traditions of philosophy that are somehow distinctively "Africana", whether that means the work in question is focused on the issues and experiences of African/African-descended people or in some more general way draws on intellectual traditions originating with African/African-descended people.    

Karl Young on 2 February 2018

Peter, I think you're right

Peter, I think you're right in highlighting the potential role for historians of philosophy but maybe downplaying the enormity of the task. Roughly a third of the US population regards Steve Bannon as an "intellectual" (or whatever substitutes for that role with them) engaged in "scholarship" (or whatever substitutes for that role with them) to rescue the proper norms of "white culture" from the current attack on them by the shithole left that calls themselves intellectuals. Whatever that could possibly mean, one thing that it sounds that it almost certainly couldn't, is something amenable to reasoned argument with historians of philosophy. And after all those are the only people that take anything that Trump says seriously and ergo would presumably be the ones important to have in the discussion.  

In reply to by Karl Young

Peter Adamson on 3 February 2018

Yes, I agree that this is a

Yes, I agree that this is a real problem. To be honest I have wondered whether anything I could say here on the site or, however obliquely, in the podcast could make any difference to what is going on in the States since I quite literally can't imagine someone who both (a) is a regular listener to my podcast and enjoys it, yet (b) is a Donald Trump supporter. If there are such people, I would be fascinated to hear from them. Occasionally people have made more or less pro-Trump comments here on the site (see immediately below for instance) but I don't know whether they are actually podcast listeners. Nonetheless I am hopeful that the the podcast, by providing massive amounts of evidence for the value of non-Western cultures and also by the way women, in the history of philosophy, will do something (though maybe only a tiny bit) to slow the wave of ignorance and prejudice whose crest Trump is so successfully riding. If nothing else at least it gives people on the other side better arguments to use in debate, if debate is indeed possible anymore.

d clarke on 3 February 2018

Is there a difference between

Is there a difference between Hellhole countries and S---hole countries?  The former adjective is and has been often used around the world by hellishly myopic people of "Non-Hellhole countries", in America by many of Trump's Democratic complainers.

In reply to by d clarke

Peter Adamson on 3 February 2018

I guess that "hellhole" is or

I guess that "hellhole" is or at least could be an expression of sympathy. You could imagine someone complaining about, say, an awful prison where the inmates are being treated unacceptably and saying it is a "hellhole" but I wouldn't find it natural to use "shithole" in that context. I think "shithole" clearly expresses utter contempt, an attitude which (to be fair) Trump actually seems to bear towards the entire human race other than his committed fans, himself, and his immediate family.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

d clarke on 4 February 2018

I thought that there could be

I thought that there could be nothing worse than Hell, certainly not Sh--.  And even if Senator Durbin's report of what Trump said was correct (and Durbin was the only one who alleged in public that Trump used that word in their meeting), because a country is in rotten shape, for whatever reason, is not a condemnation of a country's ordinary person.  Trump calls murderers murderers, rapists rapists, but he has not condemned half of his own citizens as "deplorables".  Neither Trump nor Clinton is a perfect person, but I think he is out to help all Americans.  ++Moving to a philosophical question, under what conditions should what is said in a private meeting be reported to the media? 

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