Global Philosophy as History of Philosophy

Global Philosophy as History of Philosophy

—by Jack Beaulieu

Accurately representing historical philosophical views beyond the Euro-American tradition to build contemporary theory enriches the options of how and where we can think today.

What is the relation of the history of philosophy to global philosophy? Let’s suppose global philosophy just is (or is best done as) cross-cultural philosophy, a methodological approach that focuses on constructing novel solutions to familiar problems by drawing on diverse philosophical traditions. (This methodology has rightly been heralded as the successor to the dated project of comparative philosophy, which focused on putting traditions or thinkers “in dialogue.”) If global philosophy is cross-cultural philosophy, then the history of philosophy simply serves as inspiration for global philosophy. Work done to understand the views of historical philosophers outside the Euro-American tradition is fed into the global philosophical enterprise, at which point the global philosopher takes over and theory-building begins. In some cases, the scholar doing the historical work may be one and the same as the scholar doing the theory-building, but the point remains: global philosophy aims to build novel theories, whereas the history of philosophy aims for something like getting the views right. Individuated by their respective goals, we have two different philosophical projects.

Philosophers working on global philosophical traditions often fear lapsing into “mere” intellectual historians. In the study of Sanskrit philosophy, this fear is (rightly) bound up with the fear of treating Sanskrit thinkers as mere text and as a series of historical developments, failing to afford them the respect they deserve as philosophers. As philosophers today, we hope that colleagues will engage with our views: better to be shown we’re wrong than to receive no engagement at all. We owe the same to philosophers of the past.

As philosophers today, we hope that colleagues will engage with our views: better to be shown we’re wrong than to receive no engagement at all. We owe the same to philosophers of the past.

Cross-cultural philosophy avoids these problems by putting theory-building in the driver’s seat: it respects the thinkers of global philosophical traditions by treating them as colleagues in the project of delivering the best solutions to philosophical problems. The cross-cultural project has deep importance (as does intellectual history!). But I believe there is a way of doing global philosophy that charts a path between intellectual history and cross-cultural philosophy. That’s an approach I’ll call global history of philosophy. Global history of philosophy has three ingredients, corresponding to each of its three descriptors.

Global history of philosophy is global because the project engages with multiple philosophical traditions from around the world. For comparison, a paṇ ḍ it, or traditional scholar, in India concerned only with philosophical tradition is not doing global philosophy, even if he (yes, always “he”) works on a global philosophical tradition. That’s because global philosophy requires engagement across borders. In my own work, I focus on the Sanskrit philosophical tradition while using the theoretical resources and vocabulary of analytic philosophy to understand the primary texts. In many ways, this hails from necessity: while analytic philosophers are familiar with the vocabulary of ancient philosophy scholarship, the vocabulary of analytic philosophy is the only vocabulary shared by analytic philosophers and scholars of Sanskrit philosophy. By using the resources of analytic philosophy, we can render Sanskrit material accessible to interested philosophers unfamiliar with Sanskrit and obscure philological vocabulary (which includes abominations such as “invalid knowledge”).

Global history of philosophy is history because the project aims to get the authors right. It primarily asks: “What is the view?”; “What is the argument?” In my own work on Gaṅ geśa, a 14th-century philosopher in the Nyāya tradition in India, I measure success by whether I put his views and arguments in terms he would accept if he were alive today and shared my vocabulary. If he would not recognize the views I present as his own, something has gone wrong. Here, the project of finding the theories, rather than building them, is in the driver’s seat.

Finally, global history of philosophy is philosophy because the project involves making the philosophy in the concerned texts come alive. Intellectual historians study the development and transmission of ideas: What was the idea, and how did it spread? But while intellectual history is history whose content matter is philosophy, it does not make for history of philosophy in the philosophical sense. Views are not merely developments in a debate. Rather, historical philosophers offered theories they thought were genuine candidates for the truth. Philosophical history of philosophy differs from non-philosophical approaches in that historians of philosophy motivate the views they find in the texts and ask whether we should believe those views, either as they are or with adjustments.

The history of philosophy ultimately holds instrumental value to contemporary philosophers. As with all history of philosophy, global history of philosophy serves as inspiration and helps us rethink the contemporary option space. Gaṅ geśa has well-argued, plausible solutions to problems both familiar and unfamiliar. For instance, have you ever thought about how you can realize after the fact that a friend didn’t attend a gathering, even though you didn’t notice their absence at the time? Gaṅ geśa has, and he’s got a detailed view about how such cases work. As philosophers, we read him to see if his views are right. To confess: I tend to think they are.

To return to our starting question: global philosophy can be the history of philosophy. Global philosophy is just the minimal methodological commitment to doing philosophy by engaging with multiple traditions. Cross-cultural philosophy and global history of philosophy present two more specific ways of doing global philosophy. These two approaches, I think, complement each other. We might worry that a methodology focused on accuracy will get us bogged down in interpretation, and so we never move on with the philosophy. But by distributing our resources, we can avoid this problem: Global historians of philosophy work to get the views right, and cross-cultural philosophers work with those views (in many cases, of course, one and the same scholar will do both aspects of the work). At the end of the day, this relation differs little from that of the history of ancient philosophy to analytic philosophy. That relation, after all, brought us fields like analytic virtue ethics.

Jack Beaulieu is a graduate student and Canada Graduate Scholar working on the history of philosophy. His research explores issues in epistemology and metaphysics through the history of late classical and early modern Indian philosophy in Sanskrit, especially through the work of the Navya-Nyāya philosopher Gaṅ geśa and his commentators. He also ranked among the five recipients of the Department of Philosophy’s inaugural Graduate Student Service Awards in 2021.