Karthick Manoharan attacks my claim that Western metaphysics – particularly, the mind/body dualism and its ancestors and descendants – is intimately connected to white supremacism. He argues that non-Western cultures have also oppressed members of various groups on the basis of other sorts of philosophies or in violation of the philosophies they profess. And he points out that dualism is not unique to the Western tradition. I don’t see how any of these points, or most of the others Manoharan raises, engages my argument, however.
In the original piece, I argue that as modern white supremacism arose, together with colonialism and the slave trade, it made use of Plato-style, Descartes-style mind/body dualism, which is beautifully suited to political oppression, and that the conceptual structure of anti-black racism is identical to that of substance dualism. I did not argue that Western philosophy is unique in its dualism, nor that every form and moment of dualistic thinking in any culture has been applied for oppressive purposes. I definitely did not argue that every form and moment of oppression can be traced to philosophy, in the West or anywhere else. Yet, these are the claims over and against which Manoharan triumphs, with unsurprising ease, if little panache.
“It is a pity that Plato, who lived several centuries prior to the Islamic thinkers, can be easily faulted for not complying with twenty-first century standards of political correctness,” Manoharan laments. That Plato preceded Ibn Khaldun by ‘several’ centuries is something on which Manoharan and I agree. But whether or not Plato comes out alright by contemporary PC standards, he was by any reasonable assessment a totalitarian who thought that people like himself should, due to the rationality they attributed to themselves, rule other sorts of people by lies.
“If Sartwell were more familiar with the philosophical traditions of Asia,” writes Manoharan, “he might have found a stronger defense for dualism in the Dvaita tradition of Madhavacharya. If he were more familiar with Western philosophical traditions, he would have known that one of the strongest proponents of nondualism was Hegel, who is incidentally mentioned in the arbitrary list of philosophical racists Sartwell opposes.” That there are dualist elements in non-Western traditions is obviously irrelevant to the question we’re allegedly discussing, whatever I may have read or failed to.
I’m afraid we’ll have to process Hegel on another occasion, but another thing I agree on with Manoharan, and which I should have emphasized or at least mentioned, is that there are definitely elements of the Western philosophical tradition that go the other way. I might mention Diogenes, Lucretius, Montaigne, Spinoza, Emerson, Dewey, and Foucault, for example, to say nothing of recent work in feminist or critical race theory. The tradition is not univocal, and I perhaps gave the impression that it was. Still, the main line is dualist, in my opinion, and these figures are dissenters from it. Dualism infests the justifications of political and economic oppression, notably in the ‘science’ of race as it arose in the 19th century. This orientation is in revival in contemporary moral theory, for example in the work of Derek Parfit, and in recent work on the free will problem that relentlessly emphasize how rationality as the philosophers construe it is what makes us human and how goodness consists in rational sovereignty over the body and the passions.
Manoharan observes that “Buddhist traditions generally agree on the importance of pradnya (reason/knowledge), sila (virtue), karunya (compassion), and maitri (love for all creatures). Yet this did not prevent declared Buddhist countries like Sri Lanka and Burma from committing genocide against the Tamils and Rohingyas, respectively.”
I did not argue that Western philosophy, or philosophy in general, has been the cause of every form of oppression everywhere, for example Burmese oppression of the Rohingya. Nor, of course, would I assert that people cannot violate their professed commitments. Enumerating a randomly-selected set of non-Western oppressions doesn’t bear on the question under consideration. If we were trying to understand the forms of oppression that have been practiced in non-Western cultures, it might well be worth looking at their philosophers, especially those of whom the rulers approved or whom they failed to repress. Obviously, myriad factors might be relevant (especially the economic), but you’re liable to find signs and structures of oppression mirrored and expressed in the philosophy, if any. There is no universal or mechanically-applicable relation between particular world philosophies and particular forms of oppression.
Nor did I argue, for example, that only Western philosophy devalues animals. That others have done so as well is surely irrelevant as far as my argument is concerned. “If animalizing the Other, as in the case of anti-Black racism in the US, is an outcome of Western philosophy, could one also say that the branding of the entire Bangladeshi population as less than humans by the occupying Pakistani forces, who committed genocide and mass rapes against the natives, is an outcome of Islamic philosophy?” Could one? Well, that would take some work. “Outcome” is awfully strong, and I was focused on isomorphism. But whether one could or not is, like most of Manoharan’s discussion, irrelevant to the matter under debate. The point that cultures other than the Western have ‘animalized’ people does not of course entail that Western culture has not, nor that the form that this has taken in the West has not been articulated in its metaphysics.
Proposed as counter-examples to the thesis that Western metaphysics is tightly connected with Western racism, Buddhist oppression of the Rohingya or Pakistani ‘animalization’ of the Bangladeshis are, of course, immaterial.
Klansmen were not driven to lynching by their reading of Malebranche. But their dehumanization of black people took directly dualistic forms: a relentless association of black people with animality understood in terms of sexuality and violence, a reduction of them to bodies, and the consequent promotion of the Klansmen in their own imaginations to the status of personhood and as naturally suited to command or exploit or murder others. The social hierarchy they sought to impose mirrors the ontological hierarchy that dualist philosophers invented.