Global Philosophy: “Philosophy as It Was Meant to Be”

Published: October 22, 2021

Posted In: , , ,

Anyone following events and courses at the Department of Philosophy for the past year and a half will have noticed something besides the pandemic preponderance of Zoom: lots of activity (including new hires) around topics and approaches often referred to as “global philosophy.” But what, precisely, constitutes global philosophy, who practices it, and, above all, why?

Like many of her colleagues, assistant professor Elisa Freschi, an expert in South Asian philosophy who joined the department in 2020, finds it important to counter common misconceptions about the field by first emphasizing what it is not: either philosophy bounded by specific geographic regions or comparative philosophy. No “standard” philosophy exists here that is then compared and contrasted to other, “lesser” versions. Rather, in the words of Jonardon Ganeri, Bimal K. Matilal Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, global philosophy “designates a hypothesis about the essence of philosophy: that it is intrinsically and essentially a form of intellectual practice that appeals to every cultural tradition, historical period, and linguistic community.”

We might thus understand global philosophy as an approach or methodology rather than a sub-branch of the larger discipline, one based in an acute awareness of the plurality of philosophical traditions pursued around the globe, both historically and today. Practitioners seek to bring these varied traditions, which may have developed at a remove from one another, into fruitful dialogue in trying to comprehend and distill the world we live in.

Specifically, this might mean drawing on a 13th-century philosopher from South India (Veṅkaṭanātha) to interrogate present-day concepts of god and atheism, as Freschi has done in her classes. Or looking at the way Africana thinkers such as W. E. B. Du Bois or Marcus Garvey conceptualized utopia to critique the foundations of what society considers just politics—as another recent addition to the department, assistant professor William Paris, does in his current work.

Expansiveness and Humility

Paris describes global philosophy’s expansiveness as a necessary act of humility, rooted as it is in the recognition that thinkers around the globe have long made efforts to understand the world. “Philosophy has always been eminently global,” he reminds us; “it has always traveled, been taken up and redeployed.”

From that perspective, global philosophy is philosophy tout court—engaged, curious, generous—“as it was meant to be.” As such, it also holds the key to the health and future of the entire discipline, aiming to find novel solutions to familiar problems and simultaneously locating new puzzles to solve. Ignoring its tenets would mean the loss of not only immense opportunities (“Why would we deprive ourselves of the possibility of testing our thinking against the widest range of ideas?” asks Paris) but also of relevance. Excessively narrow intellectual horizons translate into parochialism, and “parochialism is the enemy of philosophy,” says Ganeri.

The equitable integration of non-mainstream voices into philosophical discourse does not, however, come at the cost of other traditions. “What we’re calling ‘global’ philosophy here very much includes the history of European and American philosophy as well,” Chris Fraser, the Richard Charles and Esther Yewpick Lee Chair in Chinese Thought and Culture, hastens to add. It truly is about expansiveness and dialogue, not exclusion or new hierarchies.

On the ground, the practice of global philosophy demands three things above all: openness, generosity, and teamwork. Not everyone has the time or inclination to learn classical Chinese, Arabic, or P­āli, or to specialize in wildly distinct traditions of thought. But working with colleagues who do have different areas of expertise—the kind of collaboration common in the sciences—is possible and encouraged.

In the humanities, it only takes a change of habit—one made easier at a place like the University of Toronto, with its large and vibrant Philosophy Department, a generous network of tri-campus affiliates, and one of the world’s most diverse cities surrounding it. “The resources U of T is devoting to global philosophy are matched by very few institutions—if any—internationally, and the university’s commitment in this direction benefits tremendously from the department’s long-standing strength in history of philosophy,” asserts Fraser, who joined the department from the University of Hong Kong this year.

The Next Generation

The commitment to a more expansive vision of philosophy in no small part originates with the department’s current chair, Martin Pickavé. “Toronto is uniquely positioned to give students a global perspective on philosophy and to train the next generation of leading scholars in global philosophy,” he asserts. “The size of our tri-campus graduate department and the vitality of our community means that we have a duty to our discipline.”

For students, opportunities abound. “Among major philosophy departments, Toronto is simply leading the way right now,” says Jack Beaulieu, a graduate student and Canada Graduate Scholar whose research explores issues in epistemology and metaphysics through the history of late classical and early modern Indian philosophy in Sanskrit. He advises, “If you are an undergraduate student interested in graduate school: there’s never been a better time to do work on global philosophy.”

Vincent Lee, another graduate student who ultimately aims to bring into dialogue strands of early modern European and Indian Buddhist metaphysics, admits that ever-expanding and diversifying faculty research drew him to U of T. And Munema Moiz, a master’s student focusing on South Asian and Islamic philosophy, suggests a further benefit of global philosophy: the study of alternative presuppositions and approaches that can shed light on one’s own biases.

“This opening of the mind has significant moral-pedagogical value,” Freschi, one of her teachers, agrees; “it’s a real life lesson.”


By Petra Dreiser