Philosophy PhD Essay Sample | Critical Essays

Philosophy PhD Essay Sample

The Problems of Ethnocentrism in the Philosophy of History

The problems of ethnocentrism tend to manifest themselves in the philosophy of history, when philosophers attempt to interpret empirical history in teleological terms. Ethnocentrism arises whenever the researcher attempts to universalize the Western subject-position. In sociological terms that have been widely popularized since Sumner, ethnocentrism involves one first identifying with an in-group, with whom one shares certain observable characteristics (culture, language, physical features, or customs, for example).[1] The belief in shared characteristics leads to an assertion of identity, and this belief in turn influences attitudes. Our attitude toward the in-group is one of favouritism, whereas our attitude toward the out-group is one of hostility.[2] The one (favouritism or ethnocentrism) necessarily supposes – by the logic of binarism – the other (hostility or xenophobia).

What are the chief accusations against ethnocentrism? Ethnocentrism, its critics claim, imposes a Western conceptual schema on non-Western forms of life, whose concepts often fail to fit the non-Western realities they purport to describe. This problem, however, is not peculiar to ethnocentrism, but is analogous to the problem of conceivability in the philosophy of the mind and the problem of obstacle-concepts in the philosophy of science in general. As the latter appears to be slightly less controversial, I will address it first. In science, conceptual anomalies have tended to arise which confound the prevalent scientific paradigm. Anomalies such as Roentgen’s screen glowing when it should not, the problem of ether drift in a Newtonian paradigm, and the problem of Lavoisier’s findings under the phlogiston paradigm provoke the crisis leading to what Kuhn has famously called the ‘paradigm shift’.[3] In the problem of conceivability, philosophers of the mind have argued, chiefly against Hume, that conceivability does not strictly entail possibility. To conceive – or to think in terms of concepts – is to make an epistemic claim, which may not be the same as attributing of something that it possibly exists in reality. The philosophy of the mind remains indebted to Kripke’s distinction between epistemic possibility (how things could conceivably be) and metaphysical possibility (how things could really be).[4] What could conceivably be the case might be metaphysically impossible (i.e.: impossible to instantiate in a possible world), and this is to be known a posteriori rather than a priori. What do the problem of ethnocentrism, the problem of obstacle-concepts, and the problem of conceivability have in common? Firstly, they invoke a belief in a set of concepts which they purport to be the best available description of the world.[5] Secondly, they involve a certain bias that awaits critical reflection. In ethnocentrism, it is the cultural bias of the Western or Westernized researcher; in the philosophy of science, it is the sociological bias of the prevalent scientific community; in the philosophy of the mind, it is the bias of the individual mind questing after a mind-independent reality. Finally, these biases are smuggled into the premises, invariably leading to a form of question-begging or another. An objection may be anticipated that I have myself been guilty of a form of question-begging, in calling ethnocentrism a problem, before having established the truth of this assertion. It was to deflect this accusation that I raised the analogy between ethnocentrism and obstacle-concepts and conceivability, which have been discovered to be problems in their respective fields of study, and whose status I then extend without circularity to ethnocentrism. What is of greater concern in the light of this analogy, however, is whether the problem of ethnocentrism is necessarily entailed by the general form of thought (i.e.: that we cannot think without concepts) and therefore unavoidable, or whether a via positiva may be constructed after the hackneyed via negativa of a critique of ethnocentrism has been undertaken.

To identify with an in-group is to identify with its philosophy of history. The Western philosophy of history has as its primary concept the concept of development, and many scholars have thus distinguished between the Western linear view of history and the non-Western cyclical one. What appears to be the case is that the dominant philosophy of history – otherwise more chillingly referred to as the ‘master-narrative’ – conceives of the history of the world as beginning with Judaism and progressing through classical antiquity and Christianity to the Enlightenment and modern liberalism.[6] What such a master-narrative leaves out, of course, is the period of the European Middle Ages (from the fifth to the fifteenth-century A.D.), a historical fact that renders more plausible – because more representative – a cyclical view of history as alternating between the Dark and the Golden Ages. Master-narratives leave no room for competing narratives, a case in point being Trevor-Roper’s statement that black Africa had no history prior to contact with the West. Trevor-Roper’s statement draws on a Hegelian relation between the concept of history and the Western concept of development. It was this Hegelian relation that allowed Hegel to essentially declare the end of history in 1806, when the Battle of Jena led to Napoleon defeating the Prussian monarchy and what Hegel presumed to be the victory of liberal democracy.[7] By the same Hegelian logic, Fukuyama was able to out-Hegel Hegel and declare the end of history with the end of the Cold War.[8] What Trevor-Roper’s ethnocentric Hegelianism ignores is that history could have evolved otherwise than has been conceived in a strictly Western sense. Or – as the philosophers of the mind after Kripke will say – conceivability is not necessarily a good guide to possibility, a metaphysical possibility that has been instantiated in pre-colonial Africa, Islamic Africa, and the African oral tradition.



[1] William Sumner, Folkways (Boston: Ginn 1906)

[2] Ross A. Hammond & Robert Axelrod, ‘The Evolution of Ethnocentrism’, in The Journal of Conflict Resolution Vol. 50 No. 6 (2006), pp. 926-936

[3] Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press 1970), 2nd ed.

[4] Saul Kripke, Naming and Necessity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press 1980)

[5] If there is a belief about these beliefs, it is the belief that these beliefs track the truths about reality.

[6] Finn Fuglestad, The Ambiguities of History: the Problem of Ethnocentrism in Historical Writing (Oslo: Academic Press 2005)

[7] I use ‘essentially’ in the sense that has been intended by Alexander Kojève in Introduction à lecture de Hegel (Paris: Editions Gallimard 1947), a transcript of his seminars at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in the 1930s’

[8] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (London: Hamish Hamilton 1992)