A philosophical box of chocolates | Interview with Chiara Robbiano
Professor Chiara Robbiano teaches philosophy at University College Utrecht, where she also serves as Honours director and Chair of the Diversity Committee. She is dedicated to incorporating voices into the curriculum which are often overlooked, such as female, queer and non-western philosopers. I know her as my thesis supervisor and as an excellent teacher of comparative, world philosophies, especially Japanese Buddhist philosophy. I interviewed her about a recently published anthology she edited with Sarah Flavel, Key Concepts in World Philosophies: A Toolkit for Philosophers. We spoke about diversity, comparisons between philosophy and anthropology and her hopes for the future of philosophy.
Klik hier voor de Nederlandse vertaling van dit interview.
By Marah Seremak
How did you select the contributors for the anthology?
We invited experts from various philosophical traditions to write about their favourite transformative concept, one that has had a meaningful impact on their lives and can inspire others. The contributions needed to be concise, providing quick insights into concepts not typically explored: a little window on something you would not usually read. Everyone was highly enthusiastic about the project and enjoyed the opportunity to write about their chosen concept.
I imagine it provided them with a platform beyond their usual curriculum to delve into a topic they love.
Yes, and extensive research was not needed as they were already familiar with their chosen concepts. They simply had to sit down and articulate their ideas. As editors, Sarah and I worked closely with Bloomsbury to ensure accessibility for all readers, including novices. Tools like glossaries were added to aid comprehension. Study questions and further readings are available online. The anthology is intended for anyone interested in philosophy. That’s why I am so proud that we managed to call it a toolkit for philosophers, rather than a toolkit for world- or cross cultural philosophers! Even scholars in philosophy are novices to parts of this book. For instance, if they studied Asian philosophy or Indigenous philosophy, they are a novice to African philosophy. The philosophers Sarah and I know work mainly with Asian and European Philosophies, so we asked them to recommend experts of Indigenous and African Philosophy. Through these connections we managed to include more traditions and more contributors from the Global South.
Did you think of the three parts of the anthology after collecting the entries?
Yes. We intentionally avoided using traditional philosophical categories like metaphysics, epistemology, or ethics. Instead, we opted for accessible language that could resonate with a broader audience. The first part is called: ”How do we acquire knowledge about ourselves and reality?” The second is: “How do we cultivate ourselves and relate to others?” This part goes from knowledge to action, in the sense of, how do I become a better human being? The third part “How we express ourselves?” is a bit unusual. It is about expression and creativity, not so much about aesthetics but more about creation and the ability to respond spontaneously in dialogue with others. So this part goes in the direction of art but also in the direction of the conversation, between people and traditions.
Why did you choose not to arrange the entries in the anthology based on the location of origin of the concepts? A Chinese concept is followed by modern Korean, African, and ancient Greek concepts. Can you explain the logic behind this ordering?
We wanted the focus to be on the concepts themselves rather than their geographical origins. The goal is that at some point, this is just philosophy, not ‘world philosophies’. One of the tasks of philosophers is to offer concepts that enable us to reflect on our predicament — tools to reflect and communicate about fundamental aspects of our experience. The aim of our book was not to cover all the main concepts of each tradition but rather to offer a diverse selection. Bryan van Norden aptly characterised it as a "philosophical box of chocolates." Readers can choose concepts that interest them, such as the good life, karma, or Ezumezu logic.
This makes it accessible for people who wouldn't usually be interested in for example Aztec philosophy, since the book is ordered by topics that could interest anyone.
Exactly. We want readers to approach the book based on their interests, rather than preconceived notions of certain philosophies. For example, instead of thinking: "I'm interested in African philosophy," they can think: "I'm interested in happiness!" The insights on happiness come from various traditions, offering different perspectives and tools to examine the same concept. Our aim is to take readers out of their comfort zones, expanding their horizons. By organising the book alphabetically, we prevent readers from easily skipping sections that may initially seem less appealing. We use footnotes to connect entries that share thematic connections, even if they come from different traditions. For example, while reading about embodied knowledge in a Japanese entry, readers can be directed to a related Aztec entry.
So, the different voices stand side by side as tools to make sense of human experience. But each philosopher in the anthology relates to a different philosophical context. In what way does this lead to differences in the form of the entries and how authors relate to their sources?
In many entries the writers refer to their sources, explain them and build up on them. Some are more descriptive, presenting for example different models that Indian philosophers produced to understand what ‘nature’ is — that could also be an original interpretation of the scholar. Others construct new concepts, in dialogue with specific sources. We encouraged authors to always specify their sources, as we want readers to learn how to do philosophy. But in some cases, we got the response: ‘we don't have primary texts, we only have oral sources.’ We faced the challenge that different traditions have distinct ways of referring back to their sources. While some traditions have extensive textual sources, others rely solely on oral proverbs or biassed texts. For instance, how can we understand ideas like time or happiness in a tradition where the only descriptions come from Christian colonisers? In such cases, one could analyse the poetry quoted in those sources or study the instruments used to measure time. To understand what it means to be a human being, we might have to look further than texts. Even looking at artefacts can be philosophical work, if we are trying to find out what a big concept like happiness means to the people using the object.
Interpreting artefacts sounds a lot like anthropology. What makes this a philosophy book?
I believe anthropologists are philosophers, when they examine the assumptions underlying the thoughts and actions of the people they study. When anthropologists interview people about freedom, they do not assume they have the same idea of it. While the frameworks in this book may have informed certain people in a certain place and time, the entries are about the concept and not so much about the people. We offer interpretations that may prevail in a particular cultural context, but now it's about what it can mean for the reader. While we provide an interpretation of freedom, an anthropologist could confirm with a certain group of people whether freedom means the same to them. It could be a nice collaboration between disciplines.
Sometimes I wonder whether philosophy is trapped in abstract assumptions, whereas anthropology offers direct evidence through interactions with people. But then if I listen to you, philosophy concerns itself with concepts and words rather than making claims about specific groups.
And not just words: philosophy can reflect on values, which can also be expressed through behaviour. When we are young and we start reflecting, we imitate and internalise certain values from those around us, for example on what it means to be happy or free. Our actions express all kinds of implicit values. For example, we may not have a full-fledged idea of what it means to be in a society, but still we greet people, don’t bump into them when we walk the streets and sometimes we help people without getting anything back. We might not be aware of the source of our values. Philosophy can help us reflect on their origin and how they inform our way of relating to ourselves and our environment.
I noticed the values in the book are not expressed through the individual, but through a network of beings — the three parts are about how we acquire knowledge, how we cultivate ourselves and relate to others, how we express ourselves? What is the significance behind this inclusive language?
Sarah and I believe people should not confine themselves to their niches or solely study their own culture. The introduction, ‘valuing diversity’, opens the anthology with our shared assumption that human beings exist within a network of interconnected individuals, regardless of their beliefs or backgrounds. In order to interact well with each other and appreciate the value of our differences, it is crucial to understand diverse perspectives. Then we can profit from our differences rather than, for instance, ignoring other perspectives.
The inclusive nature of the book allows me to become familiar with a perspective, even though it could be East-African and I'm not from that region.
Yes, but I would like to stress that we don’t want to homogenise human nature or convince readers of a single, correct view of the world. We aim to showcase the richness that arises when different voices come together. We want to be an ideal community of scholars and readers, writing and reading in all parts of the world, including the Global South. All wanted to share a concept we thought the rest of the community could profit from, while realising: this is my individual contribution, a jewel in Indra’s Net.
The epigraph of the book is: ‘to our students and our children, may you live in a world that values dialogue across difference’. What does this mean to you personally?
This is my deepest aspiration. Working between disciplines or traditions is undoubtedly challenging. It is easier to collaborate with those who understand our jargon and require no translations. However, once we embark on collaborative efforts, valuable insights emerge. Although there may be values in this book that don't align with my own, I choose not to adopt a stance of being for or against a particular framework. Instead, I strive to understand why someone chose to highlight the concept and how it shapes their experience. In my classroom, I encourage dialogue across differences by having students embody frameworks they may not necessarily agree with, allowing them to role-play as philosophers. My goal is to make people curious and give them a glimpse beyond their own bubble. We could think: ‘you are different from me, that makes you precious, tell me about your world.’
‘According to pre-Buddhist myth, the god Indra has a net with a jewel at the intersection of every two strands. Each jewel is so bright that it reflects every other jewel in the net. This is adopted as a metaphor for the manner in which each thing that exists is dependent for both its existence and its identity upon every other thing that exists.’ (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
Sarah Flavel and Chiara Robbiano (eds), Key Concepts in World Philosophies. A Toolkit for Philosophers. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2023.
De vertaalde versie van dit interview verscheen in iFilosofie #71. Klik hier voor de volledige editie en hier voor de vertaling.