Questioning ‘Western Philosophy’: Of Origin Myths and Hermetic Histories

17 Jun 2022 04.00 PM - 05.30 PM Alumni, Current Students, Industry/Academic Partners, Prospective Students, Public
Organised by:
Lilith Lee

Lea and Josh are writing a book challenging the idea of ‘Western Philosophy’ from historical, historiographical, and philosophical perspectives. In this joint talk, they take aim at two core features of the narrative of ‘Western philosophy’: Lea discusses (i) its origin story, according to which the tradition begins with the Greeks with the supposed invention of philosophy, and Josh challenges (ii) the presumption that it constitutes a continuous, hermetically sealed tradition stretching back to the ancient Greeks – taking inspiration from perhaps the first critique of the very idea of ‘Western philosophy’: that of Ben Kies (1917-1979), a South African public intellectual and schoolteacher. 

Lea Cantor: Confronting the Origin Story of ‘Western Philosophy’

A foundation stone of narratives of ‘Western Philosophy’ is its supposed origin in Greece with the birth of philosophy: in the beginning, the story goes, there were the Greeks, and they invented philosophy by abandoning religion and mythology. In doing so, they allegedly moved from ‘mythos’ to ‘logos’. 

Three claims are consistently made about the ‘Presocratics’: that they (i) ‘invented’ or ‘discovered’ rationality; (ii) abandoned their predecessors’ mythologies and religious beliefs in favour of a strictly philosophical or scientific method of inquiry; and (iii) were secular or even anti-religious thinkers. Although the best scholarship on early Greek philosophy does not fall prey to these untenable positions, few attempts have been made to render the gap between histories of ‘Western Philosophy’ and the specialized scholarship visible. The extent of this disconnect will form the basis of the first part of my talk. 

Second, I trace this outdated ‘mythos-logos’ narrative to 18th- and 19th-century Eurocentric histories of philosophy, showing that it has historically served to justify – and continues to underpin – the exclusion of so-called ‘non-Western’ traditions from the history of philosophy. 

Third, I highlight what is at stake. The narrative that Greek thinkers invented philosophy through a shift from ‘mythos’ (variously interpreted as ‘mythology’, ‘religion’ or ‘theology’) to ‘logos’ (variously framed as ‘rationality’, ‘science’ or ‘argument’) is part of what allows scholars and popular authors alike to present ‘Western Philosophy’ as a standard-bearer for what counts as philosophy as such. This greatly contributes to the perceived illegitimacy of ‘non-Western’ traditions. Abandoning the fetters of the mythos-logos framework, and the ‘Western Philosophy’ narrative more broadly, frees up space for so-called ‘non-Western’ philosophical texts and ideas to be engaged with on their own terms and without being hamstrung by an illusory set of standards.

Josh Miller: From the ‘History of Western Philosophy’ to Entangled Histories

The idea of ‘Western Philosophy’ is little more than a legitimation project for European colonialism through to post-second world war Pan-European identity formation and white supremacist projects. Thus argues Ben Kies (1917-1979), a South African public intellectual, schoolteacher, and activist-theorist. In his 1953 address to the Teachers’ League of South Africa, The Contribution of the Non-European Peoples to World Civilisation, Kies argues that there is no such thing as “Western civilisation” – and, by extension, no such thing as a “Western man” with a “Western philosophy”. This approach is, according to Soudien (2019: 138), “almost unheard of anywhere in the world at the time”. Indeed, it may be one of the earliest challenges to the idea of ‘Western Philosophy’. Moreover, through critical engagement with numerous sources, including prominent historians of philosophy, Kies demonstrates the exchanges, interactions, and hybrid knowledge formations arising throughout global history and especially the history of philosophy. 

Drawing on Kies’ contributions and contemporary scholarship in the history of philosophy, I argue that the idea of a distinctive, hermetically sealed ‘Western Philosophy’ is a recent fabrication, and that entanglements between philosophical ‘traditions’ have in fact been the norm for millenia. Indeed, several philosophical traditions are so enmeshed in one another that it is impossible to disentangle them; instead, we should dispense with the idea that there is a pure, self-generated, and continuous ‘Western Tradition’ of philosophy. Acknowledging this millennia-long history of entangled philosophy opens new pathways for thinking through philosophy and its history today.

About the Speakers:

Lea Cantor is a doctoral candidate in Philosophy at the University of Oxford. Lea's primary research interests are in classical Chinese philosophy (especially the Zhuangzi), early Greek philosophy (particularly Parmenides), comparative methodology, and the global history and historiography of philosophy. ​Outside of her doctoral research, she is strongly committed to promoting cross-departmental discussion of marginalized philosophical traditions. She is the founding president of Philiminality, a student-run platform for cross-cultural philosophy. 

Josh Platzky Miller is an NIHSS postdoctoral fellow at the Humanities Institute, University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, and an affiliated lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge, UK. Josh's primary research interests are collective action, African and Latin American politics and political thought, social epistemology and the imagination, and the global history and historiography of philosophy.