CfT Mini-Grant Report: ‘Decolonizing’ Philosophy?

On May 10th, 2021, my students and I welcomed Dr. Arudra Burra (Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi) to our class (PHIL 216—Indian Philosophy). This class is a survey of Indian philosophy from the Vedic period to the present. The course also fulfills Sewanee’s G7 learning objective (“Encountering Perspectives: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion”). So to frame our inquiry into the different Indian philosophical traditions, we have been thematizing questions about perspective and inclusion throughout the semester. What does it mean to be part of an intellectual “tradition”? Is Indian philosophy one tradition or many? Does Indian thought even fit into the category of “philosophy” (which is often understood as a specifically “Western” tradition)? How have such distinctions between the “West” and the “East” come to be, and to what ends have those distinctions been deployed?

To address these questions in the Indian context, the final unit of the class has been dedicated to exploring the effects of colonialism on both modern Indian and European philosophy. These sessions have culminated in a discussion about what it could mean to “decolonize” philosophy, both as a discipline and as an intellectual practice. In connection with this question, we read Dr. Burra’s recent essay “The Lamps in our House: Reflections on Postcolonial Pedagogy”, where Burra reflects on his experience teaching European philosophy to his students in India. Here Burra asks: What does it mean to engage with an intellectual tradition which is not “one’s own”? What would “ownership” over an intellectual tradition even mean? Can such “ownership” plausibly be justified? And what intellectual possibilities might be excluded when thinking about philosophy in this way? To follow up on these questions and provide a capstone to the overarching themes of our course, Dr. Burra gave a lecture to my class entitled “Reflections (and Reservations) on ‘Decolonizing’ Philosophy”. In his talk, he explained how decolonial narratives have shaped contemporary political discourse in India on both the left and the right. Dr. Burra explored how such narratives might open up new possibilities for philosophy, while also potentially closing others. He concluded by offering various strategies for decolonizing philosophy, emphasizing that success in this endeavor should enable and promote fruitful dialogue between intellectual traditions, rather than further isolate them from one another. After his talk, Dr. Burra fielded some challenging questions from my students on these issues.

Many thanks to Dr. Burra for his illuminating talk (which he heroically offered to deliver via Zoom at 2:00am his time, so that my students could engage in Q+A with him synchronously!) Finally, I’d like to thank both the CfT and the Philosophy department for sponsoring Dr. Burra’s visit to our class, as well as Jacob McGhee for his technical support during the event.

Cameron F. Coates, Visiting Instructor of Philosophy