In his latest post, Steve Shiffrin concludes as follows:
Theological ethics in a variety of faith traditions have been developed in communities of discourse that go back many centuries. Why wouldn’t they have something interesting to say about a broad range of legal, political, and ethical topics? There may be good historical explanations for why theologians are absent from reading lists in law, politics, and ethics, but I do not think there are good reasons for their exclusion.
I wholeheartedly agree, and attempt here to account in some measure for why these and other “communities of discourse” have often been systematically excluded in this fashion.
I think this is to some extent the reflection of a professional division of labor that has become ossified owing to institutional inertia, increased specialization, and academic bias, among other things. My late teacher and friend, Ninian Smart, used to complain (both in private and in print) that Rawlsian Liberalism (in particular, A Theory of Justice, 1971, revised ed., 1999) was effectively articulated in a “worldview vacuum” because it was deliberately and abstractly crafted so as to be “beyond” the messy worldviews that people more or less identify with or subscribe to “on the ground” and outside the seminar room. This is ironic because Rawls was ostensibly concerned with “public reasoning” and arguments by and for citizens of a democratic polity (granting that politicians, government officials, and the judicial branch are held to more rigorous and somewhat different standards although the rhetoric of such reasoning should be easily translatable into a discourse accessible to the masses), but short of clearly demonstrating how a motley of “actually existing worldviews” could arrive at or endorse the fundamental (axiomatic) assumptions and basic premises of his ideal position and principles of justice, it is structurally or rhetorically unable to make a prima facie appeal to that public apart from those precious few professional ethicists and philosophers adept at such forms of speculative and experimental reasoning. Part of the problem here is simply rhetorical: Plato could reason in a fairly sophisticated and abstract manner but the vehicle of his philosophy took a dialogue form that made it accessible to citizens (often the young men) of the agora, a rhetorical mode far different (because it is designed for citizens as citizens) from that adopted by modern professionals under constraints to publish or perish. Mind you, this complaint might equally apply to not a few theologians today, but much of the problem is professional gatekeeping that subscribes to and enforces analytic standards and criteria for argumentative discourse that are not employed or at least not necessary outside these limited professional domains: the regnant assumption is that one is typically writing for and to philosophers (or perhaps would-be philosophers). To be sure, some of these philosophers will rhetorically “dumb-down” their discourse to speak to various publics, but relatively few professional philosophers appear able or even willing to do this.
Back to Ninian:
“Scientific humanism and Marxism are often in living contact and conflict with traditionally religious belief-systems. Rivals should be treated together. If they are not, then we are taking steps to entrench some determinate viewpoint into our educational system, and genuine pluralism is in this way eroded. Sometimes indeed we have arrived at the regrettable state of affairs in which the philosophy department may regard itself as teaching rationality and scientific humanism in ideological contrast to the crypto-religious teachings purveyed by a religion department. It is a regrettable state of affairs because it entrenches selection of personnel by reference to the acceptability of their beliefs, but it is regrettable also because it is not an honest situation. If the institution of religion or of philosophy means the imposition upon the university of a worldview not derived essentially from the nature of the university, we are back with at least a mild case of discrimination against outsiders.
But at a deeper level, the false division between religion and philosophy (or rather an aspect of philosophy) is bad, though normal because it reflects one of a number of absurdities in the way in which we carve up the academic world. A student who wishes to study Sartre probably has to go to French Studies [this is not as true today as when Ninian wrote this]; Mao, and it is Chinese Studies; Vivekananda or Tillich, to Religious Studies; Wittgenstein, Kant, or Chomsky, to Philosophy; Marx to Political Science; the worldview of the Masai, to Anthropology; and Theodore Herzl, to Jewish Studies. Yet all these people and ideas are expressing worldviews—overlapping, sometimes in conflict, often presenting themselves for choice. It does not make sense that academic studies are in this respect so fragmented. To some extent, the problem is that we have evolved differing canonical traditions: we have defined the past in terms of modern philosophy, for instance, and so define a canonical line as genuine philosophers. Often some thinkers may be banished: for a long time in Anglo-Saxon philosophy (predominantly ordinary-language and analytic) it was not possible to discuss Heidegger or Sartre: and to a great degree Indian and Chinese philosophy are also outcaste.” From his book, Religion and the Western Mind (Albany, NY: State University of NewYork Press, 1987): 9-10.
As for claim of the final clause of the last sentence above, things are changing, as the philosopher Jay Garfield explains in a recent interview:
Question: “You say that at the time of moving to Buddhist philosophy many of the philosophers and cognitive scientists working in philosophy of mind and so forth were dubious about the merits of your doing this. Has this attitude changed over the years so that it is no longer seen as an aberration, or is it still a problem?”
Garfield: “It has. I have been gratified to see how many Western philosophers now at least take non-Western philosophy, including Buddhist philosophy, seriously. An increasing number are reading and discussing non-Western philosophy; the APA now often includes a few panels on non-Western philosophy – again, including Buddhist philosophy – on its program; an increasing number of departments seek philosophers who can teach non-Western philosophy in their departments, or cross-list courses in Religion departments on Buddhist or other non-Western philosophical traditions. Just a few months ago, Christian Coseru, Evan Thompson and I directed an NEH summer institute on ‘Consciousness in a Cross-Cultural Perspective’ in which we integrated Buddhist and Western perspectives. That institute attracted as participants and as faculty a number of philosophers whose work is almost entirely in the Western tradition who were happy to take seriously Buddhist material. So there has been a lot of progress. But there is also a long way to go. People in our profession are still happy to treat Western philosophy as the ‘core’ of the discipline, and as the umarked case. So, for instance, a course that addresses only classical Greek philosophy can be comfortably titled ‘Ancient Philosophy,’ not ‘Ancient Western Philosophy,’ and a course in metaphysics can be counted on to ignore all non-Western metaphysics. A course in Indian philosophy is not another course in the history of PHILOSOPHY, but is part of the non-Western curriculum. And many of the major journals in our field will not even seriously consider submissions that address non-Western literature. Until the literature, curriculum, professional meetings and mode of engagement with the literature is as diverse as the world of philosophy itself, there is a lot of work to do. And that work is a matter of both intellectual and moral imperative. It is simply irrational to ignore most of world philosophy in the pursuit of truth, and immoral to relegate any literature not written by Europeans as somehow beneath our dignity to read.” [emphasis added]