Notes on a Global Philosophical Method (2. Convergence and Synthesis)

In my first note of this series, I discussed justification for what I’ve been calling “global synthesis” in philosophical method.  In this note, I consider a few potential problems for such a system and offer some responses.  I also consider global synthesis more broadly as something that might go beyond philosophy and help us think about constructing the norms and values that guide our lives more generally.

Part of the idea behind the “global synthesis” I have been discussing is the creation of intuitions that are representative of a wide swath of human cultural experience.  In the first entry, I spoke specifically about global synthesis in philosophy, but in this note I consider it more broadly in terms of cultural intellectual foundations.  A common refrain from those who reject the need for “diversity” in philosophy or other areas of intellectual pursuit is that diversity in methodology is ultimately counterproductive.  Such people claim that we have in modern Western science, culture, and life, the tools for attaining truth, and to admit other conceptions of the world into our worldview will just wreck this successful project.  The modern scientific project is objectively the most useful one, the objection goes, and rethinking the foundations of our intellectual projects will inevitably lead us backward.  There are a number of problems with this view, only a few of which I will discuss here.

First—this view conveniently ignores the sense in which our current scientific progress has depended on a kind of global synthesis.  Some act as if modern science sprang forth fully developed from the forehead of European culture like Athena emerging from the forehead of Zeus.  This view is just as historically inaccurate as the story that philosophy emerged with the Greeks, developed in Rome and medieval Europe, and was handed down to modern Europeans from there.  The numerous people and ideas that have contributed to the development of science, as with the development of even the “Western” philosophical tradition, have essentially been erased by previous generations of scholars committed to the idea of the supremacy of European intellectual culture.  Just as one example—modern science could never have progressed to the point it has using the Greco-Roman system of numerals.  We take for granted that the numeral system in use in the modern West is associated with the West, but this system was invented in India, and was introduced in Europe by Islamic mathematicians in the medieval period (to whom we owe a number of mathematical developments). The equatorial coordinate system in astronomy, which is still widely used, was not invented by Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), to whom its adoption in Europe is often attributed, but by Chinese astronomers more than 1500 years before his time.  Western scholars of previous generations have been eager to dismiss Non-Western innovation and contributions to such developments, even in the face of overwhelming evidence.  Often, the presumption that Non-Western people simply could not have developed things that the Greeks or European people did not have is presented as evidence in itself.  See this discussion of the armillary sphere in the 19thcentury Danish astronomer John Dreyer’s book on Tycho Brahe:  “Among the most important instruments in use at Alexandria were the so-called spheres or armillae.  These are said to have been used in China at an early date, but the invention has doubtless been made independently by the Greek astronomers.”  If you can’t deny Non-Western invention (because you would look silly given the clear evidence), you can just stick your fingers in your ears, close your eyes tightly, and claim that Westerners must have independently created it without Non-Western help. There are many more examples of this kind of thing throughout the history of science and philosophy.

Second—our modern scientific worldview is not “completed”, and anyone who thinks it is would be well served in looking to the seemingly intractable problems of consciousness, unifying the four fundamental forces of nature, and other difficulties.  It is far from obvious that the solutions to these problems, or problems we don’t yet even recognize as problems, can be found using current frameworks. It may be the case, as it was in the past and will likely continue to be in the future, that something like “paradigm shifts” are necessary to make headway, and such shifts require access to new ways of thinking and envisioning problems.

Finally—even if one jumps fully on board with the view that contemporary scientific naturalism, as it exists today, is sufficient to answer all human problems and uncover all knowledge (a flawed view for many reasons, but let’s just assume it here), we still depend on intuitions to guide our inquiry, in science as well as philosophy, and these intuitions, if drawn from only a single cultural source or limited cultural sources, will lead us astray.

While the primary reason for “diversity” in our thought is the idea that different starting points and different locations yield different insights, there are many other reasons beside this one to create a global synthesis.  The sense in parts of the world that the model of “globalization” the world has followed in the past century or so has largely been one of “Westernization”, with ideas from the West displacing or blending with the native ideas of particular places, has begun to create a backlash worldwide.  We see nationalist, xenophobic, and racist movements gaining strength worldwide—not just in the West.  While the reasons for these movements must certainly be somewhat different by region, they all seem to share a reactionary longing for a simple system in which the thought and way of life of a single people, represented by the cultural or ethnic majority of the state in question, is not only dominant but exclusively followed.  Such systems may in part be a reaction based on the sense of various peoples that their thought, culture, and identity are becoming diminished in the ever-strengthening global project, one designed primarily to serve the interests of corporations and the state regimes who benefit from them.

In constructing a global synthesis, we gain the opportunity to thoughtfully plan globalization, with the aim of knowledge and increased social harmony.  Without something like this, we allow globalization to happen simply on the basis of something like laissez-faire capitalism, progressing without concern for either knowledge or social harmony, but with only the aim of generation of corporate profits.  Leaving such an important task up to “markets” seems to me a recipe for disaster—a disaster the first stirrings of which we are beginning to see with the worldwide rise of extreme right, racial and ethnic nationalist governments.

In aiming with the global synthesis to integrate the viewpoints and insights of all human cultures in order to foster a sense of inclusion and global commitment, we seem to generate a number of problems.  Any synthesis will necessarily change the parts we bring to the synthesis, turning them into something very different from what we started with.  While we can ensure that different ideas are brought to the synthesis, we cannot ensure that these ideas will remain in the same form or even be recognizable after the synthesis.  And if a given group of people is committed to particular ideas, perhaps ideas they associate with their traditions and culture, then adopting a synthesis approach will in essence require them to abandon these ideas in their previous form and adopt a basically foreign way of thinking, albeit one in which they might recognize a certain family resemblance to some of their previous ideas. At least a few potential problems emerge from this.  First—is it proper to ask people to abandon their cultural backgrounds, even if in exchange for something that in some way respects that background? Second—if the particular ideas of a group will be altered beyond recognition in the global synthesis, then to what extent can we say that these ideas are represented in the global synthesis, such that those with commitment to them would have reason to accept such a synthesis in lieu of either accepting capitalist globalization or resisting change at all and insisting on their earlier views?  Third—if the process of global synthesis is an ongoing project, such that we continually modify our intuitions and views on the basis of access to new viewpoints and locations, then how can we be committed to any given viewpoint?  Every point in the synthesis will have to be only provisional, and this cannot create the kind of commitment that will allow us to use the products of the global synthesis as guides to life, foundations for knowledge, etc.

My response to the first problem is to point to the inevitability of change and the illusion of “authentic” culture. Indeed, buying into a global synthesis would change cultures.  But so does globalization, the passage of time, meeting new people, facing new situations, etc.  There is no pure culture within a bubble that can be easily and clearly distinguished from other cultures and kept “pure”.  Cultural change is always happening, for better or worse. On my view such change is better when we can thoughtfully guide it in a way that attempts to respect the insights and concerns of all, and worse when we simply allow it to happen “on its own”, in ways dictated by conquest, commercialism, popular style, etc. Look at the cultures of India today, for example.  Are they the same as those of 1850, or 1950?  Should we think of a modern English-speaking Indian person living in the city, driving a Ford, wearing “Western” clothes, watching Middle-Eastern inspired movies, and working at a Japanese company as less authentically Indian than a villager who speaks only Hindi and lives a life more akin to what you might find in the 19thcentury?  And if we do decide that 1850 villager India is the truly authentic one, what do we say about the cultures and ways of life one found in the subcontinent in 1500? 1100? 250 BCE?  Is modern Hindi less authentically Indian than Sanskrit, because it is greatly influenced by Arabic and Persian? But then what about Sanskrit? Is that less authentically Indian than pre-Indo-European languages of the subcontinent, because the Indo-European folks weren’t originally there?  Things become ridiculous pretty quickly when we go down the path of authenticity.  Culture is not static, nor is it walled off from others. Whether we like it or not (and we should like it!), cultures are always blending into and becoming one another, much like children are born from the combination of different parents, and as generations pass we have more genetic combinations.

My response to the second challenge is related to the first.  We have to concede that in order to engage in global synthesis we do have to ask people to in some sense abandon their cultural backgrounds.  But we are not doing this selectively.  All of uswill have to abandon these backgrounds to adopt these new views from the synthesis.  But, as suggested above, this need not be seen as a bad thing.  After all, we are always already abandoning our cultural backgrounds, every time our culture changes, as it inevitably does. Any American today, for example, has a different culture than they had in 1990.  We have the internet, cell phones, and a host of other additions and subtractions.  Few of us think of the changes that have taken place in our culture as an abandonmentof that culture.  And, as stressed above, if culture is going to change anyway, why not try to encourage it to change in more thoughtful, just, and intellectually valuable ways, ways more likely to lead to new and better understandings of ourselves and our world?

The third potential problem seems to me much harder to tackle, and I’m not sure I can give an adequate response here, although I can suggest some ways of thinking about the problem.  The big issue lurking in the background here is the question of whether there is anything like what Charles Peirce referred to as the “limit of inquiry”, in which a global synthesis might converge on a final and universal truth.  Is the global synthesis a project that has such a limit, or is it a potentially ongoing project that always subject to change upon change in conditions, akin to evolutionary processes in living beings?  Given its connection to humans and our locations and cultures, it’s hard not to think of it in the second way, although many of us (including myself) also have a strong inclination to think of it in a more objective way.  If there is truth, shouldn’t it be something we can converge on in the limit of inquiry? Won’t we ultimately come to some point at which the global synthesis stops, and we have what we need? Yet, at the same time, it’s hard to imagine ever achieving such a point as long as humankind exists, given the necessity of change.  So maybe the best we can do is to concede that the global synthesis is always conditional, and requires constant renewal.  But what we can say is that the fact that something requires constant renewal does not in itself rule out that thing informing norms that guide our lives.  As we grow and change, our ideas and our norms grow and change with us. And we are then guided by ever-changing signposts.  If we think of our own lifetimes—the norms that guide us today are likely not the same as those that guided us when we were young, yet we find ways to continually integrate our constantly changing outlooks and worldviews into our lives. A path is not necessarily determined when one begins it, but that doesn’t mean one will not be able to find one’s way. The considerations that guide one when they begin a path may change as they walk it, just as the themes and motivations of our life stories change as we write them. Yet the narrative is always made coherent, the story often unfolds in a natural and systematic way.  Maybe this is the best we can ever do.

In my next entry on this topic, I will move back to thinking about philosophical and related methodology, and discuss what I see as the potential role of academia in helping to create and promote global synthesis.

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