Cameron Coates is a professor in the Philosophy department at Sewanee as well as a PhD candidate at DePaul University. He developed and taught a course on Indian Philosophy last semester, which I had the privilege of taking. I had the opportunity to sit down with him in his office in Woods Laboratories to talk about the course, his background and work, and diversity in the curriculum.
Originally from Chicago, Coates attended St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, which is where he said he “fell in love with philosophy.” As previously mentioned, he’s currently a PhD candidate at DePaul University in Chicago.
“My research focuses on Greek philosophy, in particular on Aristotle, but I have pretty broad interests in that area. I also work on Plato, especially his political philosophy, and I’m also interested in the history of philosophy more generally,” Coates said when asked about his interests. “I’m really interested as well in some thinkers of the early modern period, as well as contemporary 20 and 21 century continental philosophy.”
When asked how he came to be interested in Indian philosophy, Coates said, “I come to Indian philosophy through my interest in Greek philosophy. I started to get interested in Indian thought when I learned about some of the really striking parallels that exist between early Greek thought and early Indian philosophy.” He added, “That’s how I really got interested in Indian philosophy in the first place, now I’m just interested in it in it’s own right, but that’s how I came to it.”
The Indian Philosophy course covers a broad timeline of thought ranging from ancient texts like the Rigveda to contemporary thinkers like G.C. Spivak. Satisfying a G7 General Education Requirement, defined by the University as “Encountering Perspectives: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion,” the course also included as a throughline discussions about the nature of philosophy as a discipline as well as the colonial histories that have produced and enforced the binary between ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ thought.
Coates said narrowing down his syllabus for such a broad subject was difficult: “It was a really challenging process. Teaching a class that’s titled Indian Philosophy, it’s sort of like if you were teaching a class titled European Philosophy. It covers such a huge expanse of time and it’s sort of ridiculous to expect to be able to do justice to that kind of subject in a single semester. Going into it, I knew it was going to be sort of impossible to cover everything that I imagined or wanted to cover.”
Coates said that his desire to include contemporary Indian thought, as well as examinations of India’s colonial history and its effect on the philosophy of the region made it even more difficult to narrow down the course materials.
“I think, one way to make things easier for myself would have been to just say, ‘we’re only going to deal with the ancient period and only look at texts up to the middle ages or something like that.’ So trying to include contemporary stuff makes it even harder to pack everything else in. But my guiding light for organizing the class was just the texts that I was really the most interested in looking at.”
Coates said about the G7 designation being granted to the course, “The fact that the class has that designation did make me want to focus on the relationship between European and Indian thought more than I may have otherwise done. It made me really want to themetize the way that Indian thought has generally been excluded from counting as ‘real’ philosophy and think about that at the same time as thinking about the very tangible connections between European and Indian philosophy. It ended up providing the focal point for the whole class, the question of what philosophy is.”
While Coates’ course is new to Sewanee, he credits Jim Peterman for helping diversify the University’s philosophy offerings. “I’m really following in the footsteps of Jim Peterman who’s been teaching Chinese Philosophy for a long time. It was the success of those classes that really made me think there might be some interest in a class on Indian philosophy here. I would love to see more classes on underrepresented philosophies. I’d love to teach a class on Jewish philosophers, I think that would be really interesting and fun. Maybe one, at some point, I’d like to teach would be on Islamic philosophy as well. I think it would be wonderful to be able to offer more classes like that.”
Coates shared some of what he is currently working on and what he hopes to work on in the future. “Right now I’m working primarily on Aristotle. I’m writing my dissertation on Aristotle’s concept of life. There’s a lot of contemporary philosophers of biology looking back at Aristotle and wondering if he can help out with one of the most persistent questions in that field, which is trying to come up with a unified, intelligible definition of life in light of all of its tricky edge cases,” he said. “I’m also thinking about other classes that I’d like to develop, the Jewish philosophy class, for example, I’d really like to do that one soon. But yeah, Aristotle is really what I have on the brain right now.”
Coates said, “I think that diversity, equity, and inclusion are really vitally important values for a community like Sewanee because intellectual inquiry is always communal. It takes place in a community, and it’s not really possible to engage in intellectual inquiry outside of a community.” For Coates, bringing in more perspectives in philosophy is one of many ways to improve the community at Sewanee. “Without an attentiveness to the ways that different voices have traditionally been excluded, the goal of having genuine inquiry, one that includes everyone at the table, is just not really possible.”