Listening to different voices

As a discipline, philosophy is still a predominantly white, male and Western affair. Slowly but surely, things are starting to change at a number of universities in the Netherlands. Since 2007, Associate Professor Chiara Robbiano works in making the philosophy curriculum more diverse and inclusive at University College Utrecht. Together with her student Ada Harpole, she reflects on what has been achieved until now and what can be done more.

Chiara Robbiano and Ada Harpole

Cross-cultural philosophy is a subfield of philosophy in which philosophers work on setting into dialogue various sources from across cultural, linguistic and philosophical streams. In academia, cross-cultural philosophy is often still seen as supplementary to Western philosophy. Chiara started teaching her first course in cross-cultural philosophy at University College Utrecht in 2007, called World Philosophies.

“It was considered a fun summer course, not an obligatory course that was needed to follow a second-year philosophy course at the College. I realised however that these different perspectives from around the world are so important and that they should be integrated into the regular semester.” Not much later, she managed to make World Philosophies an official first-year course. In the years that followed, Chiara developed further three courses on cross-cultural philosophy for different Bachelor levels and she composed readers including primary texts from non-Western philosophers. “Cross-cultural philosophy is not just for fun anymore; it has become a serious part of our philosophy programme.” 

Cross-cultural philosophy is not just for fun anymore; it has become a serious part of our philosophy programme.

Chiara Robbiano
Chiara Robbiano

Although Chiara has a background in ancient Greek philosophy, her publications now mostly focus on cross-cultural philosophy. Later this year, the philosophy book Key Concepts in World Philosophies will be published by Bloomsbury Academic. For the volume, she and her co-editor Sarah Flavel collected and edited 45 chapters from authors around the world, each introducing a different concept that is central in a philosophical tradition.

“Think of praxis, emptiness, vital force, epistemic friction, suffering, ubuntu, happiness, heart-mind, creativity and equality. Among the authors are top-notch cross-cultural philosophers. I believe it can be a great resource for teaching beyond the boundaries of the Western tradition.” 

Diversifying philosophy

Ada, a third year Philosophy and Literature student at the College, finds it impressive that a small college like University College Utrecht has such a complete curriculum in non-Western philosophy. “Here you could complete an entire Philosophy major focusing on comparative and cross-cultural philosophy. Chiara’s class ‘Who are we? Philosophical Views on Humans and Gods’ was my second philosophy class at the College, and the first where I read authors who were not only white or male. It was helpful to see that non-Western philosophers were not something peripheral to our typical Western canonical philosophy, but that they could be in dialogue with the Western tradition and therefore really enrich it.” 
Nowadays, more universities are focusing on diversifying their Philosophy curriculum. For example, Free University Amsterdam appointed Monika Kirloskar-Steinbach last year as Professor by Special Appointment of Diversifying Philosophy, and Leiden University established the Bachelor Philosophy: Global and Comparative Perspectives a few years ago. This combines Western perspectives with those of India, East Asia, Africa and the Arab world. However, as Ada and Chiara both notice, philosophy is still lagging behind compared to some other academic disciplines in which the curriculum is now being critically evaluated.

“There is this idea of one way of doing philosophy as universal and necessary, which tends to be very analytic and Western-focused”, Ada says. According to Chiara, this specific approach on philosophy might come from the fear that if everybody can start from different assumptions and different rules of inference, it might no longer be possible to check whether there is ‘rigour in arguments’. “What I also see is the concern among colleagues that students will not be accepted into Master’s programmes if they do not focus enough on the Western philosophical tradition. And perhaps there is also the fear of teaching something new out of their comfort zone, although it seems to me that this is what philosophy is all about.”  

There is this idea of one way of doing philosophy as universal and necessary, which tends to be very analytic and Western-focused.

Ada Harpole
Ada Harpole

Different voices

For Chiara, teaching philosophy means, among other things, to equip students with a certain methodology. That involves close reading, the capacity to analyse a text, to find hidden assumptions and understand definitions. “To do all of this, you need to be humble, to be aware that you only know so little, and to stay open to different assumptions and definitions, and possibly to a different method. When you are humble, you can be in dialogue, and being in dialogue with someone who is different from you is always important and enriching. Hearing different voices is the only way that can lead us further.”

According to her, that makes diversifying philosophy much more than adding women or people of colour to the curriculum. “It is not about having new or different perspectives at the end of the syllabus, but it is about really engaging and listening to other voices. Those different voices teach us openness, to examine our own assumptions and values, and they give us the chance to train our philosophical skills.” 

It is about really engaging and listening to other voices.

Chiara Robbiano
Chiara Robbiano

The value of diversity

What Ada really enjoys about philosophy is that the relevance of it is more than formally academic, as it can also help you develop as a person. “Philosophy is all about being curious and asking questions, just like we do every single day.” Chiara also believes that the methodology that is important to cross-cultural philosophy is fundamental to become world citizens and responsible human beings. “We have to talk and cross boundaries every day, when we are with our families or doing groceries.” For the upcoming years, Chiara’s mission is to apply the dialogical methodology she uses in teaching cross-cultural philosophy to other disciplines and outside academia. “Seeing the perspectives of others and to really learn to be in dialogue with others is what matters everywhere. Always being grateful of having somebody who looks differently to something: for me that is the value of diversity.”  

Find out more