The Absence of Chinese Philosophy in the U.S.

The Absence of Chinese Philosophy in the U.S.


In the United States, there are about 100 doctorate-granting programs in philosophy. By my count, only seven have a permanent member of the philosophy faculty who specializes in Chinese philosophy.

That’s Eric Schwitzgebel (UC Riverside), writing in the L.A. Times.

Philosophy professors in the United States have all heard of Confucius and the Daoist Laozi. Many have also heard of their approximate contemporaries in ancient China: the later Confucians Mencius and Xunzi; the easygoing skeptic Zhuangzi; Mozi, the advocate of impartial concern for everyone; and Han Feizi, the authoritarian legalist. But most of us have not read their works. As a result, most U.S. university students are not exposed to Chinese thinkers in their philosophy classes.

Schwitzgebel notes that “our neglect of ancient Chinese philosophers in U.S. philosophy departments is partly a remnant of our European colonial past” and partly a function of ignorance begetting ignorance:

Because we don’t know their work, they have little impact on our philosophy. Because they have little impact on our philosophy, we believe we are justified in remaining ignorant about their work.

He argues against their exclusion from the curriculum on a number of grounds, comparing them favorably in some respects to a number of Western philosophers firmly entrenched in the canon. The article is certainly worth reading. Afterwards, if you haven’t already, you can enjoy this:

(image: sculpture of Confucius by Zhang Huan)

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Les Green
6 years ago

This is an important point. Intellectual insularity often follows on, and then contributes to, incompetence in other languages, other histories, and other traditions. But how to break into that circle when the monoculture is unselfconscious? (I complain about this here http://ljmgreen.com/2015/09/07/occupy-the-right-aspect-of-the-syllabus/)Report

anonymous
anonymous
6 years ago

I don’t have the linguistic skills to read Chinese philosophy. With my training in a USA grad program with a focus on the history of philosophy, I’ve studied Greek, Latin, French, and German, so I can examine the original texts of the classic Western philosophical works when I teach them. I am hesitant to teach texts that I cannot read. So what should I do? At this point, a decade out from grad school, I’m not likely to embark on a study of oriental ancient languages. So, I don’t know what force the above-cited article has *for me*; I don’t see adding Chinese texts to *my* undergrad syllabi. (I’m not going to assign philosophers from other traditions either (Nagarjuna) for the same linguistic reason.) To those with greater linguistic skills, I say, “Great. Add such texts to your syllabi!” But for me, I can’t professionally risk dilettantism for the sake of a canon-expanding. Any assumption that I can adequately teach Chinese philosophy perhaps presupposes a more problematic version of colonialism than the one mentioned in the article.Report

Livingston
Livingston
Reply to  anonymous
6 years ago

That’s admirable anon, it really is. But I’m afraid that standard is inappropriately high for introductory courses.Report

Carter
Carter
Reply to  anonymous
6 years ago

Sorry but I need to disagree with that. If full linguistic competence was a necessary condition for teaching a philosopher, I suspect that 80% of those including even one Greek philosopher in their syllabus should not feel allowed to teach it. It’s nonsense. I find this thoroughly unintelligible:

“I can’t professionally risk dilettantism for the sake of a canon-expanding. Any assumption that I can adequately teach Chinese philosophy perhaps presupposes a more problematic version of colonialism than the one mentioned in the article.”

Nobody suggested to make stuff up and ventriloquize Chinese sources. There are several very good contemporary translators and commentators on Chinese and Indian philosophers, Westerners and Asians, who work hard to make these texts available to a western audience, and to offer enough context to make their message clearer. I’ve never studied Sanskrit or Pali or Tibetan, but thanks to the commentaries, introductions, and glossaries of those who did, I acquired enough competence to discern those central terms of (say) Buddhist metaphysics and how they are employed across different linguistic traditions. To bark “colonialism!” at those who are willing to stick their neck out for the sake of offering a more comprehensive, less-one sided philosophical canon is nonsense. How about knocking on the door of a colleague in a language department and ask to go through a few core terms over coffee in order to keep the mistakes to a minimum? We are talking about UG curricula here, not about writing a monograph on Confucius without reading Chinese. The idea is to expose young students to a broader range of philosophical sources, not to become world-experts in Asian philosophy.

The accusation of “dilettantism” thrown against those who *responsibly* and with *the help of colleagues* want to try and go out of their strict AOS is one of those quaint structures of intellectual policing that keeps philosophy in its current narrow-minded state. Philosophy is a collective enterprise: if we cannot trust our colleagues enough to believe their translation and commentary to a text in a foreign language is accurate, how do we ever expect to achieve any progress?Report

anonymous
anonymous
Reply to  anonymous
6 years ago

Carter,

Thanks for your comments. I think the issue is over truth value of the following proposition:

P1: One can have an AOC in texts that one cannot read except in translation

I’m suggesting that P1 is false, and that the many aids you identify (e.g., translators, commentaries, friends with language skills, professional colleagues you trust) are not going to overcome the linguistic requirements for an AOC.

My argument is somewhat motivated by professional self-interest. An outsider to philosophy (or, a university administrator!) might conclude from your comments that philosophers don’t very highly of the rigor our discipline if we don’t think that an ability to read the texts is a necessary condition for teaching them to the next generation. Or, such an outsider might think we don’t think very highly of UG teaching when we so restrict the argument to undergraduate classes.

Sure, I’m being adversarial here. I want to protect the integrity of genuine expertise in the discipline and defend high quality for undergraduate teaching. (And perhaps I want to feel better about the time we have spent in school studying languages.)Report

Scu
Scu
Reply to  anonymous
6 years ago

I agree with those that think teaching Plato’s The Apology in your Intro class does not require you to know classical Greek. But it seems to me that even assuming you are right on this standard, there are other things you can take from the editorial, and also other things you can do to diversify your syllabuses. Even just working with German, French, and English, there are plenty of African and Caribbean thinkers you can assign. And while you might not invest in learning classical Chinese, if you already have French and Latin under your belt, you might be able to learn Spanish or Portuguese and assign works Latin American philosophy. There are, in addition, any number of underrepresented populations writing in English that you can add to your syllabuses. So, perhaps Chinese philosophy is not something you will add to your syllabuses, but you can certainly add Fanon, Du Bois, etc.
The other take away is that even if you do not feel comfortable teaching Chinese philosophy, you can read some of it, take it seriously as an intellectual and philosophical tradition, and if you school goes to hire someone, you can hopefully strive to hire people with the language skills to teach a wide variety of philosophy. The end goal is to have a diverse syllabuses, and to include a wide variety of global philosophical traditions in our offering to students, while taking seriously the work of colleagues who study this within philosophy departments.Report

MrMister
MrMister
Reply to  Scu
6 years ago

Though this all may be true in its own right, I take it to depart from the claims in the article (and so not to really represent ‘other things you could take from the editorial’). As I read it, Schwitzgebel’s argument in the LA Times piece puts very little weight on diversity per se. Rather, he argues that particular Chinese philosophers ought to be studied because they are at least as interesting and important as commonly studied Western counterparts–and, indeed, sometimes more interesting, as he holds Mencius’ and Xunzi’s debate over human nature is more sophisticated and compelling than Hobbes’ and Rousseau’s. Since the argument strikes me as being, essentially, ‘Mencius is awesome, and better than Hobbes in a lot of ways’ it correspondingly seems to me that one would not be accommodating it by leaving Mencius off a syllabus and instead adding, e.g., Fanon and Du Bois.Report

David Morrow
David Morrow
Reply to  anonymous
6 years ago

Having benefited greatly as an undergraduate from a seminar on Aristotle co-taught by a true scholar of Greek philosophy, I can appreciate where you’re coming from. But I agree with the comments below that linguistic competence is not necessary for including Asian philosophers in your teaching.

I would also add that even if you don’t intend to include Asian philosophers in your syllabus, the claim that one’s department ought to teach some courses about (or including) Asian philosophers still has relevance *for you* insofar as you have some input into departmental decisions about curriculum development and hiring. In particular, if you accept Schwitzgebel’s central claim, then you ought to regard it as a deficiency if your department doesn’t have anyone capable of teaching Asian philosophy.Report

Owen Flanagan
Owen Flanagan
6 years ago

Bravo to Eric for this important essay. The Chinese philosophers Eric names offer deep and compelling insights on human nature, value, politics, and living well. There are similarly great sources in the Indic traditions, Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, as well as abundant African sources. Insofar as these philosophers speak of living traditions, and many do, there are reasons of respect to want to understand them. What a great gift such courses would be to our undergraduates, 99% of whom will not go on to be professional philosophers, but who will live out their lives in increasingly multicultural, cosmopolitan worlds. My experience is that liberal arts colleges and non R-1 universities lead the way here and a non trivial number of faculty at such places teach comparative or cross cultural philosophy (including of course teaching about marginalized indigenous traditions). It is the 100 or so PHD granting institutions that Eric mentions that are fighting the rearguard action and protecting resources for a certain parochial conception of what analytic philosophy — deep throat — is. That said, there is a growing number of philosophers trying to figure out ways – local curricular reform, more focus on what students deserve/ought to learn about, summer seminars to help young scholars/teachers read/learn about/teach courses that include non-western sources, post-docs to encourage new PhD’s to work in these areas. So, there is hope. The excuse that religion departments teach about non-western philosophies, or Africana or Latina studies and cultural studies teach about folk philosophies of marginalized people, so that we do not need to is a matter for another time. But this all too common response to the obvious need for comparative courses reveals a widespread but hard to defend pretense of universality to which no normative area philosophy is entitled, and also for the same reason, makes professional philosophy look educationally not serious.Report

Johnny_Thunder
Johnny_Thunder
Reply to  Owen Flanagan
6 years ago

What are the African sources you have in mind?Report

Livingston
Livingston
Reply to  Johnny_Thunder
6 years ago

I don’t know what Owen has in mind, but I might be able to help you out, doll (Johnny_Thunder…. get it?).

In undergrad, I took a course called, “Truth and Reconciliation: South Africa,” or something like that. We spent some time learning about a principle of forgiveness called Ubuntu.

*I think there’s a software by the same name, but the African philosophy came first.Report

Philip J. Ivanhoe
6 years ago

There are many things to consider in regard to the issue of incorporating East Asian and other forms of non-Western philosophy into the curriculum and staffing structure of contemporary philosophy departments, but I would like to address the question of whether the admittedly demanding linguistic requirements of the field pose a special or serious problem.
If one chooses to specialize in East Asian philosophy, one will have to master Classical Chinese, for this is the language in which almost all the most widely respected texts of the different East Asian traditions were written. One should also become proficient in at least one modern East Asian language so that one can avail oneself of the secondary literature of at least one East Asian community of scholars and learn from and exchange ideas with these colleagues. If one is not fortunate enough to be raised in a bilingual environment, it will take some time to become proficient in these languages. Of course, one also has to learn and develop impressive facility in the craft of philosophy and find something original and interesting to say. So if one wants to specialize in East Asian philosophy, the costs of admission are rather high. Fortunately, this does not mean one cannot do original and important research in the fields of East Asian and Comparative Philosophy much less does it pose any impediment to incorporating such material into the current curriculum. The explanation for this is simple: one can make use of the excellent and growing resources in both scholarly translations and sophisticated secondary literature that is available in English. Those of us who devote some of our time and energy producing translations would find it odd if someone were to feel that the products of our labors are anything less than accurate renditions of the original texts or that we fail to place them in their proper historical and cultural contexts. Similarly, the books, articles, and reviews that constitute the already impressive and growing secondary literature offer a sure and revealing introduction and guide to these traditions. As a matter of fact, several well-known philosophers who do not specialize in East Asian philosophy and who lack the requisite levels of linguistic mastery have produced remarkable and most welcome contributions to the field. So I don’t see that there is any linguistic basis for precluding the study of East Asian philosophy.
Moreover, the case is not all that different for most of the other kinds of philosophy that were not originally composed in English. While there surely are more contemporary Western philosophers who can read the classical languages of Western philosophy well and conduct original research that depends on them, it surely is not the case that most who teach or refer to Aristotle or Seneca in their writings have a high facility in Greek or Latin (or even any ability to read these languages). Unless one specializes in what is (unfortunately) called “Ancient Philosophy” (as if there were only one ancient world or one ancient tradition of philosophy) there is no expectation of such scholarly expertise. I would hazard to say that most of the people who are regarded as Kantians have never read the three Critiques and many of them simply could not do so with any genuine comprehension. I don’t have reliable data on these matters and will withdraw these speculations if someone comes forth with a reliable study showing that my conjectures are wrong, but I have been around professional philosophers for some time and enjoyed positions in some of the best programs in the English-speaking world and so I do have some basis for these impressions. I think there are additional reasons to believe that these claims are closer to right than wrong, for example, more and more top Philosophy PhD programs have dropped their language requirement. The only natural language one needs to know in order to graduate is English. This means that most contemporary philosophers do not believe that expertise in languages other than English is a prerequisite to being certified as a professional philosopher. Whatever one thinks about such a policy, its implication in the present case is clear.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
6 years ago

In response to anonymous at comment 2:

When I took over an introductory class on “World Philosophy” from a more qualified colleague, I made use of two excellent resources he loaned me (Thanks, Nic!):
Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy edited and translated by Philip Ivanhoe and Bryan Van Norden
https://global.oup.com/ushe/product/classic-asian-philosophy-9780195189810;jsessionid=08A40CBA7FEC9240E927AFC0F45C28A5?cc=us&lang=en&
Classic Asian Philosophy: A Guide to Essential Texts by Joel J. Kupperman
http://www.hackettpublishing.com/readings-in-classical-chinese-philosophy

I would recommend the former book both for faculty and grad students wanting to learn some Chinese philosophy on their own and as a text for students. The latter I would recommend for faculty and grad students or undergrads who already have some background in Western philosophy, as it relies frequently on comparisons to Western figures that would be more confusing than helpful to introductory students.

When I agreed to take on this course I also shared your concern about the presumption involved in teaching this material despite my lack of expertise. My solution was to simply be perfectly up front with the students about what my expertise was and what they were getting out of the course: An approach to Chinese philosophy filtered through the standpoint of someone whose main expertise was in Western philosophy. For introductory students, and perhaps even for advanced undergrads, there is some value in treating the course (or a section of the course) as a set of material that you’re exploring together. It provides an opportunity to model for students the practices I’m trying to get them to engage in, like openness to inquiry and close reading of texts in which they have no prior expertise.

To Johnny Thunder: For African Philosophy some good places to start are:
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/akan-person/
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/african-ethics/
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/africana/Report

johnny_thunder
johnny_thunder
Reply to  Derek Bowman
6 years ago

Thanks. That stuff looks interesting. Having not read the actual papers discussed, here’s my reservation about spending more time on them as potential material for an introductory undergraduate course. A lot of the sources cited to seem to be largely reports, with a little bit of commentary pro or con, on the mainstream moral values of certain peoples in Africa. It seems to me that this wouldn’t fit very well alongside great thinkers, like Plato or Confucius, or great works, like the Yoga Sutra, that propose creative (sometimes idiosyncratic) ideas and grapple with attendant problems. Owen Flanagan’s comment made me hopeful that there were “classical” African texts of this nature. Perhaps writing didn’t play the kind of role in the great African civilizations that’s required for the production of such works?Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
Reply to  johnny_thunder
6 years ago

Hi johnny_thunder, you seem to be assuming that the “certain peoples in Africa” mentioned in the SEP on African philosophy are not equivalent to great thinkers like Plato or Confucius. Why do you have this assumption? I can’t think of a good reason.Report

Johnny_Thunder
Johnny_Thunder
Reply to  Anonymous
6 years ago

Anonymous, I was using “peoples” in the sense of “the Akan people” (or “the Greek people” or “the Chinese people”). I do generally assume that the folk theories of such populations, though interesting, are not equivalent to an individual great thinker’s philosophical system. So I’ve never thought to try to find ethnographic analyses on the Ancient Greek population’s views on rhetoric or justice to assign to students alongside Plato. If my assumption seems implausible to you after that clarification, I could probably suggest evidence for it, though I would have thought it straightforward enough as to not need any.

I should add that my general assumption that within syllabi, ethnographic analyses won’t be a great fit alongside philosophical systems is very defeasible. I’ll probably end up checking out the papers on the Akan, so all of this might be somewhat moot. But I’ll just say that I would love to include on some of my introductory syllabi a work by a great African thinker who wrote before the development of the modern academic system, and thus without academic jargon (e.g. Plato, Confucious, etc.). (Of course, I realize that many thinkers that pre-date the academic system are quite difficult to read; absence of academic jargon is a necessary but not sufficient condition for fit with an introductory syllabus.) I asked Owen Flanagan about sources, and followed up, in the hopes of discovering such a philosopher or text.Report

Johnny_Thunder
Johnny_Thunder
Reply to  Anonymous
6 years ago

One more thing: I have looked at the Egyptian tale of the peasant. I wonder if students in an introductory class would be able to get the philosophical substance of it. Has anyone tried it with intro students?Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  johnny_thunder
6 years ago

Johnny Thunder: If you’re looking for classic written sources, try the Treatise of Zera Yacob, by the Ethopian philosopher of the same name, which reads similar to many Early Modern European works (Fair warning, I’ve only read the translated excerpts from this anthology: https://global.oup.com/ushe/product/introduction-to-world-philosophy-9780195152319;jsessionid=C3ADDAAFDFC8EFD9182F05ABD32DD05F?cc=us&lang=en&). But also keep in mind that two of the SEP entries (and many of their cited sources) are written by contemporary African philosophers.Report

johnny_thunder
johnny_thunder
Reply to  Derek Bowman
6 years ago

Awesome, thanks!Report

Phil H
Phil H
6 years ago

Concepts vs texts vs text fetishism

WRT comment 2, the focus on original texts in some forms of philosophy is a slightly curious thing. I compare the sciences, humanities and arts: in the sciences, you never look at original texts; in the humanities, it’s rare; in the arts, it’s central. If philosophy is really about ideas, it seems that those ideas should be separable from the texts in which they occur. I suppose it depends on how you read texts, though. Do you read them to get ideas from them, or do you read them in order to have an encounter with a particular mind? Do you regard the texts as objects of study in themselves, or are they just vessels for the ideas?Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
Reply to  Phil H
6 years ago

I always thought it was unfortunate that science is never taught in a historical fashion. I think much could be gained from introducing students, especially those at the primary and secondary levels, to primary scientific sources and discussing in depth the history of science. I think most Americans have a tendency to think that scientific insights such as Newton’s laws of motion or the heliocentric universe were either obvious or the result of some sort of inspiration that normal people could never hope to replicate. A better sense of how science has changed and what factors led to our received scientific knowledge might make students realize that one can do respectable, even important, scientific work while still being wrong and that scientific progress, if such a thing exists, is a more gradual process than is usually believed. Without this historical awareness, a lot of the science taught in schools appears completely arbitrary and counterintuitive, so that it is no wonder if many children have a hard time keeping up or caring.Report

Alison Gopnik
6 years ago

It’s interesting and ironic that, in the 17th and 18th centuries, important philosophers like Pierre Bayle and Leibniz were explicitly interested in Asian philosophers and actively discussed and sought out information about them. In fact, Bayle, and others explicitly relate the ideas of the ancient Greek skeptics to those of Asian philosophers, and explicitly link both sets of ideas to figures like Spinoza. And I’ve argued that they implicitly influenced Hume, too. But of course, back then there was a much less narrow view of what philosophy was all about…Report

sebulba
sebulba
6 years ago

I always thought that philosophy is a tradition – the US philosophy – being very much spurred on by the WW’s migration continuing European philosophical tradition which goes back to the Ancient Greek tradition. It’s not that in China or India or Iran there is no philosophy but they are different traditions of thought, ones that developed on their own and with their own ways of seeing things. So we might teach about it, perhaps, but what would be the point? I mean, why teach Ancient Chinese as opposed to any other philosophy? Why not teach Ukrainian, Turkish and Georgian philosophy instead? Is Ancient Chinese philosophy somehow historically connected with philosophy as it is done today in the US in the way Ancient Greek or Early Modern is or in the way Iranian or Russian philosophy isn’t? Is it somehow, miraculously, in touch with modern science and philosophy? Or is it just a matter of comparative philosophy? But then why Ancient Chinese and why not teach contemporary Chinese philosophy? Or why not actually do contemporary Chinese or Indian philosophy instead of analytic philosophy or phenomenology? Why do people who argue for this not engage with contemporary Chinese or Indian or Iranian philosophers and so do what they preach? One does not need to argue with Stanley or Bratman in order to publish in Phil Review, right?Report

Amy Olberding
Amy Olberding
6 years ago

sebulba, I think the reasoning is that it’s possible to learn from Chinese philosophy. And to learn from the multiple traditions we largely neglect. Of course that prospect – of learning something – rides on seeing philosophy as more than a parochial exploration of the historically contingent interests that trace through Europe and back to Greece. What that “more” might be is open to debate, but so long as philosophers carry on about purportedly wide reaching phenomena (e.g., “our intuitions,” “rationality,” “moral agency,” or whatnot), they’d be well served to investigate whether and how these feature in the world beyond inheritors of Greek and European tradition. And there are scholars engaging and teaching contemporary Chinese philosophers. If you’re not seeing this material show up in Phil Review, it doesn’t follow that it doesn’t exist.Report

Mike
Mike
6 years ago

Check out professor Sam Crane.
http://uselesstree.typepad.comReport

Mike
Mike
6 years ago

Chinese philosophy, it’s out there if you look.
http://warpweftandway.comReport

PeterJ
6 years ago

… “Because we don’t know their work, they have little impact on our philosophy. Because they have little impact on our philosophy, we believe we are justified in remaining ignorant about their work.”

Here is my favourite complaint about the profession stated boldly and clearly.

I feel it is not just Chinese philosophy that is ignored but also any philosophy that would be consistent with it. The problem for incorporating more of this tradition into the curriculum would be that to teach it would require some understanding of it, and the sentence quoted here explains why this understanding is not usually available. This would be equivalent to teaching something like QM – not for the dilettante.

Perhaps this article is really a comment on ‘western’ and ‘eastern’ traditions, where one is largely unknown to faculty and students. To restrict the comment to Chinese thought would be a shame since for me Buddhist philosophy would be the easiest way into Lao tsu and Chuang tsu. explaining the philosophical basis of these ancient Chinese writer’s terse and cryptic communications. All of this global philosophical edifice is ignored, from the Upanishads to Al Halaj to moderns like Alan Watts and Rupert Spira and not just the ancient Chinese branch. I would not recommend that a student try to get to grips with someone like Lao tsu without first clarifying his doctrine with the help of more recent and more forthcoming non-Chinese thinkers.

My feeling is that those who do not look into this other tradition of thought are not philosophers in a true sense, and it is a practice that leaves the Academy unable to show what is wrong with it. We should at least know it well enough to refute its foundational axioms but even this seems to be considered not a worthwhile exercise. From the outside (in case customer feedback is interesting) it all looks a little odd. Philosophy is philosophy and it surely shouldn’t matter where an idea comes from.

Furthermore (harrumph), a bit of Chinese philosophy would soon see off naive critics like Tyson and Hawking.Report

PeterJ
6 years ago

Amy

-“If you’re not seeing this material show up in Phil Review, it doesn’t follow that it doesn’t exist.”

Quite so. The literature is vast. It is intriguing, however, that the philpapers archive has no category for the topic of nonduality (which is usually where its at for Chinese philosophy). The metaphysics section is divided into a list of theory-types none of which I would endorse. So everything has to go into ‘miscellaneous’. This is a telling decision on their part, while suggestions for a change are ignored.

It is not just that this this philosophical tradition is ignored, it is actively discouraged. After all, the development of ‘western’ or ‘rational’ philosophy depends on a rejection of Chinese philosophy. Cogent objections range from ‘it’s all woo’ to ‘it’s all in a foreign language except for the translations’. No refutations ever.Report

Hector_St_Clare
6 years ago

Where is all this Chinese philosophy that Americans are missing out on?

Like the saying goes, show me the Proust of the Papuans and we shall read him.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Hector_St_Clare
6 years ago

Since Schwitzgebel’s article already contained specific recommendations, I doubt this is a sincere question. But if it is a sincere question, check out the collection by Ivanhoe and Bryan Van Norden I linked above.Report

p
p
6 years ago

“After all, the development of ‘western’ or ‘rational’ philosophy depends on a rejection of Chinese philosophy.” Does the development of Chinese philosophy depend on the rejection of Western philosophy too? What are the bases for any of these claims? Just exoticism? It’s all very confusing – on the one hand, there is the call to teach Ancient Chinese philosophy (and perhaps Ancient Indian philosophy) at undergraduate intro level (why not other Ancient or contemporary philosophies is not spelled out – perhaps just because that is what the people arguing for this are interested in). This is, basically, a call for inclusion, which is OK. Then there is a quite different call to engage with Chinese philosophy in research – which is very odd since it is not clear why contemporary philosophers need to engage with Ancient Chinese or Indian philosophers (as I am sure they do not really engage with Eriugena, Aquinas, or Plotinus). Perhaps this is a call to work on history of Chinese philosophy? Or is it a call to engage with contemporary Chinese philosophers, i.e., the equivalents of, say, Habermas, Foucault, Kripke, Searle, or Rawls who work there now?Report

Hilary Bok
Hilary Bok
6 years ago

I was trying to develop a course in Chinese philosophy 15 years ago, right before I moved to Johns Hopkins. I found it extraordinarily difficult. The problem wasn’t just the fact that I do not speak or read classical Chinese, though that was a problem. It was that I was starting with essentially no background in Chinese thought. Moreover, at the time the works available in translation were very limited. Since one of the best ways to deal with a lack of background is to read everything you can find, the fact that so very few works of Chinese philosophy were find-able for a non-Chinese speaker was a very serious problem. It meant that I had to treat works of Chinese philosophy as lonely islands that appeared out of nowhere. I would never do this with Descartes, for instance, nor would I think that just reading someone else’s summary of the intellectual history of his time was enough.Report

PeterJ
6 years ago

Hilary – Yes, that is a big problem. This is why I would recommend coming at early Chinese philosophy via Buddhist philosophy. Armed with an idea of the transcendence of the categories of thought, unity, nonduality, emptiness and so forth, then we can make some sense of the Lao Tsu and Chuang Tsu. With no such explication I’d say these writers are opaque to put it mildly.

Me – “After all, the development of ‘western’ or ‘rational’ philosophy depends on a rejection of Chinese philosophy.”

P – “Does the development of Chinese philosophy depend on the rejection of Western philosophy too?”

Yes. It is a rejection of dualism thus a rejection of almost all western philosophical ideas. But the rejection is not equivalent. We reject Chinese philosophy without coming to an understanding of it. Western philosophical ideas are rejected because they do not work. Nothing like a reciprocal arrangement.

“What are the bases for any of these claims?”

Logic and experience. Logic shows that dualism does not work while experience shows that it is not the case.

P – “It’s all very confusing – on the one hand, there is the call to teach Ancient Chinese philosophy (and perhaps Ancient Indian philosophy) at undergraduate intro level (why not other Ancient or contemporary philosophies is not spelled out – perhaps just because that is what the people arguing for this are interested in). This is, basically, a call for inclusion, which is OK. Then there is a quite different call to engage with Chinese philosophy in research – which is very odd since it is not clear why contemporary philosophers need to engage with Ancient Chinese or Indian philosophers (as I am sure they do not really engage with Eriugena, Aquinas, or Plotinus).”

Really? You do not see the lack of success of western thinking as an indication that there might be a better way?

P – “Perhaps this is a call to work on history of Chinese philosophy? Or is it a call to engage with contemporary Chinese philosophers, i.e., the equivalents of, say, Habermas, Foucault, Kripke, Searle, or Rawls who work there now.”

Surely what we want is not equivalence but improvement. Lao Tsu has not been superceded. Ancient or contemporary, it would make little difference. It is the basic ideas that underlie Indian and Chinese philosophy that are missing from (stereotypical) western thought, in particular the rejection of dualism for the final transcendence of Yin and Yang. (I would largely blame the breakaway Roman Church with its naïve theism). Armed with this idea and its corollaries then the Tao Te Ching, the Upanishads, the Gnostic gospels, the Buddhist sutras and even Chuang Tsu’s comedy sketches become one body of work all promoting the same view.

It would be too much to expect philosophers to all dash off to sit alone in a cave for ten years to get to grips with ancient Chinese philosophy, and grants would not be available, but the metaphysics can be approached without any experience to inform it. This would be why I see Nagarjuna as so important in this context, that he strips philosophy back to its essential core and thus gives us a principle (nonduality, the falsity of all distinctions) that allows us to interpret Lao Tsu et al. Where the latter states cryptically, ‘True words seem paradoxical’, the former explains logically and at greater length why this is so. Assuming no insight from experience, then in the absence of such an explanation I would defy anyone to make sense of Lao Tsu’s comment.

For this reason it would seem a mistake to focus on ancient Chinese philosophy and better to focus on the worldview it usually represents. This appears in and can be investigated through the esoteric writings of all major religious traditions under the heading ‘doctrine of the mean’, ‘perennial philosophy’, ‘nondualism’ and so forth. With this ‘meta-view’ gained, then we can wander easily between Plotinus, Peirce, Bradley, the Buddha, Spira, Nagarjuna, Spencer Brown and the ancients like Lao Tsu and Chuang Tsu, for they all promote the same old view and continue to do so.

Understanding ancient Chinese philosophy would be, for the most part, understanding mysticism, and this would not require a study of Chinese philosophy. For instance, Francis Bradley goes a long way towards explaining Lao Tsu in his metaphysical essay ‘Appearance and Reality’ without mentioning him, as does Plotinus in the Enneads, and as do the writers of the Upanishads.

It is not just Chinese philosophy that suffers from neglect but ‘eastern’ thinking and mysticism in general. CS Peirce, for many the US’s greatest ever philosopher, did not neglect this area of research and has a lot to say about it, but for all his greatness he is ignored. Kant says quite a bit as well, and he is likewise ignored. These ideas are almost always ignored since they have to be for the western approach. For this reason the idea of putting Chinese philosophy on the curriculum seems revolutionary and dangerous.Report

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Reply to  PeterJ
6 years ago

I am sorry to say but I really believe that your reply is precisely the kind of thing that is off-putting to most philosophers (big, mostly unfounded, generalization; lack of knowledge and understanding of (history of) philosophy in the West; exoticism, and so on), and would make them think twice before touching Chinese or Indian philosophy. I am skeptical about Eric S. suggestions not because I am against Chinese or Indian philosophy but because I am worried about practical matter. First, there are not enough people who are both philologically and philosophically equipped to work on history of Chinese philosophy. A good example is Ancient Greek philosophy – it took several decades after Hegel (who came up with the basic idea of doing history of philosophy as a special thing) to establish reliable editions of even the basic texts. This is very hard work. And it surely does not stop at one edition or one translation. It took another few decades before the field moved from a more philological and historical orientation to philosophical exploration. Typically, we recognize the difficulty of all this and the people who teach Ancient Greek philosophy are, by and large, specialists (at good institutions) who understand the language and spent considerable amount of their studies getting the training to do so, including appreciation of the whole history of scholarship. Even in Ancient Greek philosophy this undertaking has not been fully carried out by any means. Medieval philosophy has yet to be explored in a comparable manner. So the question is – where are all the people to do this – I know that there are some people who work on history of Chinese philosophy but even if they are all amazing, we would need much more sustained field to make this a real undertaking – and it would be a commitment by universities for decades to come. The question is whether philosophers at large think that this is worthwhile. Eric S. above does, and perhaps he is right. But unless we do something like what I just described, any responsible person will end up with the problem Hilary Bok described above. Of course, no problem including some readings in intro classes – but I think that’s not exactly what the call is for.Report

PeterJ
6 years ago

Well P, to me your reply illustrates the problem nicely. I see no way thorough this smoke-screen. It indicates the downside of not having any Chinese philosophy in the curriculum. Total incomprehension.Report