At Least in the West

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Author’s Note: this post based on an old Discord rant

“In seeking what is best for their children, most parents are implicitly buying into what has been the dominant view of individual rationality, at least in the West, since the time of the Greeks.” (Temkin)

This quote, from Larry Temkin’s recent(ish) Aeon article “What’s the Best Option?” about the assumed transitivity of good choices, is an example of one of my philosophical pet peeves. When a philosopher is talking about the history or popularity of an idea, and they just casually say something like “at least in the West” without elaboration.

If this type of line is explained more thoroughly I have no problem with it. As a counter example see the chapter “Man’s Dominion” in Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, in which he explains clearly-if-briefly why he is focusing on the history of Western speciesism specifically.

“I concentrate on the ‘West’ not because other cultures are inferior—the reverse is true, so far as attitudes to animals are concerned—but because Western ideas have, over the past two or three centuries, spread out from Europe until today they have set the mode of thought for most human societies, whether capitalist or communist.” (Singer, 185)

The trouble is, when a philosopher doesn’t clarify what this statement means, there are two very different ways a line like this could be interpreted as context for the philosophical argument:

  1. I don’t have enough familiarity with the history of ideas outside of the West to comment on these ideas elsewhere, so what follows should be taken as limited in scope.

  2. Based on the familiarity I do have with non-Western thought, I have concluded that this idea has not had the same presence everywhere, therefore you should more seriously doubt that it is an inescapable intuition anyone who is thoughtful will arrive at, and apply some credence to the possibility that it just a matter of culture.

Looking at these quotes, it seems clear what Singer is saying, insofar as the distinction between Western and non-Western thought matters to his points, he means number 2. If you look at Temkin’s quote however, both seem to be about equally plausible interpretations. This should be worrying.

If a “the West” line is used to mean number 1, then it shouldn’t affect the reader’s understanding of the idea’s prevalence at all. If the reader doesn’t know about the idea’s importance outside of Western philosophy, they still don’t know, if they have any level of familiarity with its presence outside the West, the line offers no challenge to this knowledge. If it is used to mean number 2 however, the ignorant reader should become suspicious of the inevitability of the idea, and the knowledgeable reader now has to pit their expertise against the philosopher’s.

Both of these changes to the context of an argument are noteworthy, their difference is not small. I would go so far as to say that the space between these interpretations makes the argument less informative with a vague reference to “the West” than if “the West” were never invoked at all. Perhaps the use of this line out of context is not all that common, I’m not sure. Although it feels familiar to me, the Temkin article is the only case I can name off the top of my head, and it is possible that Temkin has clarified his point elsewhere in his work (though if so that doesn’t excuse this article as a standalone). Still, it’s something I’m cautious of now, and I have come to suspect that when a philosopher uses an “in the West” type line without specification it may be as a cheap trick to try to superficially strengthen their argument by making people think they might mean number 2 when they really just mean number 1.

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