Bad Arguments Against Teaching Chinese Philosophy


“ME: Have you considered teaching Chinese philosophy in your department?
COLLEAGUE: Philosophy is by definition the tradition that goes back to Greece…”

So begins Bryan Van Norden‘s compilation of arguments he has heard in response to his pushing for wider teaching of Chinese philosophy in Western philosophy departments, along with his responses to them.

[Liang Shaoji, “Chains: The Unbearable Lightness of Being”]

Professor Van Norden, the James Monroe Taylor Chair in Philosophy at Vassar College, and Chair Professor in Philosophy in the School of Philosophy at Wuhan University, recounts these arguments during an interview with Clifford Sosis at What Is It Like To Be A Philosopher?

Sosis asked: “Common questions and criticisms you encounter when you argue that Western Philosophy is incomplete and racist? How do you respond to those questions and criticisms?”

Below is Van Norden’s full response:

I have had versions of the following conversation more times than I care to remember:

ME: Have you considered teaching Chinese philosophy in your department?

COLLEAGUE: Philosophy is by definition the tradition that goes back to Greece.

ME: That is not even a good prima facie argument. What makes something philosophy is its topics and methodology, not an accident of historical association. For example, mathematics exists independently of the Anglo-European tradition, so why shouldn’t philosophy?

COLLEAGUE: Would you want to fly in a plane built with non-Western mathematics? [Note: yes, I have actually heard this “argument.”]

ME: I would ONLY fly in a plane built with non-Western mathematics. Have you heard of Arabic numerals? They’re really catching on.

COLLEAGUE: We don’t teach religious studies or the history of ideas, only genuine philosophy.

ME: What Chinese thinkers have you read that you believe are not really philosophers? Mozi? Zhuangzi? Mengzi? Xunzi? Han Feizi?

COLLEAGUE: I haven’t read any of them.

ME: If you haven’t read any of them, how do you know–

COLLEAGUE: — but they’re all just aphorists.

ME: Heraclitus, Pascal, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein are aphorists, and they are philosophers. Besides, most Chinese thinkers do not write in aphorisms. That is a stereotype.

COLLEAGUE: But they don’t discuss the same philosophical topics in China that we do in the West.

ME: Yes, they do discuss many of the same issues, including topics in normative ethics, meta-ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics.

COLLEAGUE: If they discuss the same issues, we don’t need to read them, because they duplicate what we already have in the West. If they discuss different issues, they are talking about a different topic, so we don’t need to read them.

ME: This too is not even a good prima facie argument. If that were a good argument, it would be a reason for no one to ever read YOUR works either. Either what you write duplicates what I already think, in case why should I read it, or you are saying something different from what I say, in which case you are talking about a different topic, so why should I care?

COLLEAGUE: Maybe they discuss the same topics, but they don’t use a philosophical methodology. They don’t provide arguments.

ME: Yes, they do. I’d be happy to give you a dozen examples off the top of my head.

COLLEAGUE: Why can’t you just teach Chinese philosophy in areas studies or ethnic studies or something?

ME: Why can’t you teach Kant in the German Department or Rawls in American Studies? Why do we even need a philosophy department instead of different area studies? The answer is that Chinese philosophers should be taught in philosophy departments because they are philosophers, and philosophers use distinctive approaches to teach texts that people in language and literature or area studies departments typically do not.

COLLEAGUE: We don’t have anyone with the ability to read Chinese.

ME: At the undergraduate level, most people who teach Descartes nowadays do not read French or Latin, and most people who teach Aristotle and Plato do not read Classical Greek.

COLLEAGUE: Yes, but they are good translations available of Descartes, Aristotle, and Plato.

ME: There are good translations available of lots of Chinese philosophy. I’ve edited two translation anthologies myself.

COLLEAGUE: We can barely cover all the figures and texts in Anglo-European philosophy now. What would you have us leave out?

ME: You are nowhere near close to covering all of Anglo-European philosophy now, you never were, and you never will be. It’s always a matter of deciding priorities, and I have seen many departments will multiple specialists in the same field in Western philosophy but no one in any branch of non-Western philosophy.

COLLEAGUE: They teach Chinese philosophy in China, and we teach Western philosophy here. What’s wrong with that?

ME: Every university in China teaches Anglo-European philosophy, and Chinese philosophy, and Marxist philosophy.

COLLEAGUE: Prove it. [Note: Yes, I really got this response once, and gave the response below.]

ME: Here is an email from a professor in China confirming what I already knew from having taught in China myself: they teach both Chinese and Western philosophy in China.

COLLEAGUE: China is really racist, you know.

ME: Since you are such a fan of the Western intellectual tradition, I am sure you are aware that you have just committed the tu quoque fallacy. Yes, there is racism and ethnocentrism in every culture in the world. This is not a reason for not fighting against it.

COLLEAGUE: So you think everything in the West is bad?

ME: I never said any such thing. In fact, when it comes to epistemology I am a Neo-Kantian.

COLLEAGUE: But you think Chinese philosophy is better than Western philosophy?

ME: I didn’t say that either. I value them both.

COLLEAGUE: Western science and technology shows the superiority of the West.

ME: China was considerably in advance of the West technologically until the start of the scientific revolution. The compass, gunpowder, and printing with moveable type were all invented in China. And any competent historian will tell you that the scientific revolution was the result of a series of historical accidents and coincidences that fortuitously worked out well for the West. For example, Kepler was led to his laws of planetary motion because he was looking for a mystical correspondence between the five Platonic Solids and the orbits of Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.

COLLEAGUE: Look this is the tradition we work in. Take it or leave it. [Note: Yes, someone I know was told this in response to the suggestion that they add non-Western philosophy to the curriculum.]

ME: Have you ever heard the expression, “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human”?

The whole interview, informative and entertaining throughout, is here.


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