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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David Cockayne
David Cockayne
1 year ago

It is mildly depressing to read of prof van Norden’s experiences with his fellow philosophers. Though there is much to disagree about, happily, I have a feeling that the post-BLM generation of students are not going to stand for this sort of thing. Having had similar conversations, as a humble student they were more like rebukes, I have come to two fundamental reasons for studying Chinese philosophy:

1) you will be better person, that is a wiser, philosopher, if you do so;
2) the world will be a better place, if we do so.

The only way to disprove (1) is to actually study Chinese philosophy. Even if you conclude that the works of the Confucians, Mohists, Legalsists and Daoists contain no real philosophy, at least you will be the wiser for actually knowing that. (apologies)

As for (2), having actually studied the works of, especially, the classical Confucians, we discover a definition of what it is to be human based not on reason but humaneness. And not merely humaneness as a Form but as practiced in all our relationshiops, from the family to the state. Our purpose as the State, a community of indivduals and a communty of communities, is the pursuit not of the common-wealth, no matter how equitably distributed, but the common humaneness: the individual and common well-being. Moreover, our State, since it is a humane community, considers itself obliged to extend that pursuit of well-being beyond its own borders, just as the humane family naturally extends its pursuit of humaneness beyond its own front door.Report

post-BLM pre-Confucian grad student
post-BLM pre-Confucian grad student
Reply to  David Cockayne
1 year ago

You should study X, because you will be a better person if you do. – Why? – Well, the only way to disprove that is to study X!

Next week’s post: bad arguments for studying Chinese philosophy.Report

Edward Cantu

Well, you really told him! Nice Xs and stuff.Report

Patrick S. O'Donnell
1 year ago

While I am not, like Professor Van Norden (all of whose books are in my home library), an expert in Chinese philosophy (and I’m only an ardent amateur in philosophy generally),* I have been reading works in English translation since the 1980s (although I first read and was rather enchanted by the Daodejing back in high school in the 1970s), becoming especially interested in Daoist and Confucian worldviews and their corresponding “schools” while not ignoring other philosophical traditions, for instance, Mohism or the “School of Names.” Like more than a few of my generation (including scholars and philosophers in the field), my initiation into these philosophies began with reading the works of Gary Snyder, Kenneth Rexroth, and Alan Watts the last had a weekly talk on Pacifica Radio station KPFK that I listened to as my substitute Sunday sermon after having left the Catholic Church). Studying these philosophies prompted me to explore Chinese art and aesthetics as well as Chinese medicine. These few autobiographical facts and corresponding constraints in mind, I want to provide some (re)sources for those new to this material, in particular, for students of philosophy and perhaps some of their charges as well who might be fairly ignorant of these worldviews (thereby overcoming ignorance of their ignorance). First, I recommend the relevant entries in the SEP, which are quite good and thus helpful for the novice with at least some background in philosophy (most of the entries have links to all of the other entries related to Chinese philosophies). Second, you can peruse my English language bibliography on Classical Chinese Worldviews available at my Academia page, along with the two study guides on Daoism and Confucianism (under ‘teaching documents,’ with appended bibliographies) I put together when teaching a college level course that including an introduction to same (while a class on ‘comparative religions,’ as it was taught in a philosophy department, we stressed the philosophical dimensions of these traditions). Finally, you should consult the “Chinese and Comparative Philosophy” blog Warp, Weft, and Way, where some of the leading lights in the field regularly blog and occasionally engage in wonderful discussions and debates on a wide variety of topics in the field. The blog of course has links to yet more online material from those with the requisite expertise and authority in Chinese philosophy.

* I’ve had a few college level courses and worked as a teaching assistant (with now professor Mary I. Bockover) for an introductory course in Chinese philosophy taught by the late Herbert Fingarette, who wrote a groundbreaking study on the philosophy of Confucius as portrayed in the Analects, otherwise I’m an autodidact in philosophy.Report

David
1 year ago

…considers itself obliged to extend that pursuit of well-being beyond its own borders…. This is beginning to become more irrelevant as we look inwardsReport

Iverson
Iverson
1 year ago

Whether to study Chinese philosophy in the English speaking department is like asking whether to eat pork liver. Chinese have developed their own skills, techniques, and cultures to make pork liver a satisfying food experience, just like they did with philosophy. Humans eat, pork liver is just meat, and the Chinese think as well. For some reason, we forgot that we are just eating and thinking, and the curiosity and excitement about eating and thinking new things have vanished for some people. They would rather keep cooking up the steak every day. With the right temperature and meat, it would taste like pork liver in a good way, but I do not think they willing to accept that now.Report

William Peden
William Peden
Reply to  Iverson
1 year ago

So, in this analogy, does Zen correspond to vegetarianism?Report

Neil
Neil
Reply to  William Peden
1 year ago

You should study Chinese philosophy because it’s a bit like something forbidden to observant Jews and Muslims and widely regarded as immoral doesn’t strike me as a compelling argument.Report

Iverson
Iverson
Reply to  Neil
1 year ago

You really brought eating pork liver to the extent of immorality, and dragged religions into it? I don’t even wanna reply but come onnnnn… I know what u mean but your objection is literally agreeing with my entire point. “With the right temperature and meat, it would taste like pork liver in a good way, but I do not think they willing to accept that now”. No one knows how morality exactly works yet (that’s why we study philosophy) but there r differences in the world (a given fact). Whatever u believe could be so widely accepted and still rejected by many. I can argue the same thing as killing an animal only for the steak is way worse. And PETA has its own right to call all of us immoral. All I’m saying is chill out and look at what we r arguing here. To read some Chinese philosophy in reality is not going to kill u. Not that serious of a thing.Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
1 year ago

Polemics like this are comforting for a lot of philosophers since they allow us to pat themselves on the back for not being like those closeminded bigots at 90s Stanford. However, if the actual goal is to have Chinese and other non-European philosophy studied and taught more widely by Anglophone philosophers, and not just to allow us to feel good about ourselves, then I doubt that polemics like this are at all useful. Focusing on individual bias against Chinese philosophy as a reason replicates the really superficial “a few bad apples” take on American policing that is both convenient for many people and unhelpful. Just as a lot of the problems with American policing have as much or more to do with deep structural problems as much or more than the racism of individual police officers, the fact that Chinese philosophy isn’t more widely taught and studied owes a lot to structural factors.
Since van Norden’s discussing teaching here we’ll focus on that (though structural factors are huge in hiring and research as well). Why doesn’t the average philosophy teacher add some Confucius or Zhuangzi to his syllabi? Well because the average philosophy teacher is an adjunct and he doesn’t have time to make any major changes to his class prep since he’s likely teaching over a dozen classes a year at different colleges. Junior TT hires at R1’s are trying to get 5 solid publications in 5 years which is insanely hard and don’t themselves have time to make changes to their classes. Even people like me in permanent positions at teaching focused schools face some big obstacles. I’ve wanted to add some Chinese philosophy to my “Ethics” classes for a long time. But there are a lot of other things that I want to do like add a lot more material on policing to my “Social Ethics” class or a decent unit on inductive logic to my logic classes, and this year both of those seemed more important for obvious reasons. I also worry a lot about what you might call sock puppetry here. No I don’t speak Greek or Latin but I do know enough about Aristotle and Descartes from grad school that I’m confident I can give a decent approximation of their views and not just use them as a mouthpiece for my own or other ideas. I’m much less confident about that when it comes to Chinese philosophers. And to me some westerner spouting his own ideas under the name “Zhaungzi”, “Lao Tzu”, or “Confucius” is no real gain and arguably worse than not even mentioning them. Polemics like this and the other ones I’ve seen from van Norden are useless to me. What would be useful are more resources that make it easier for me to add Chinese philosophy to my classes. Blog posts from people who’ve done it, annotated “Ethics” and “Intro” syllabi that incorporate Chinese philosophers, and APA panels on how to do it would all be useful to me. (I know some of these things exist already but more would be better and the Daily Nous would serve us better by drawing more attention to them).
Apart from the fact they ignore structural factors this sort of argument isn’t useful in that it seems unlikely to change anyone’s minds or to lead to any real changes in teaching or other behavior. Generic John isn’t going to suddenly decide that Chinese philosophy is worth his time because someone implies that he’s a racist for dismissing it. At best getting people to add Chinese philosophy to their classes to avoid being tarred as racists will get them to grudgingly add a reading or two to meet some superficial idea of diversity and cover their butts (and those readings will of course be the first to be dropped when the class falls behind). Instead what one needs to show is why Chinese philosophy actually is interesting. What do individual Chinese philosophers offer that the philosophers already in the canon don’t? Why do you think Chinese philosophy is so cool? What are we missing by not reading Chinese philosophy?Report

Amy Olberding
Amy Olberding
Reply to  Sam Duncan
1 year ago

Sam,
I agree that expecting adjunct and overstressed junior faculty to self-train in new areas is not just insensitive but puts the wrong people on the hook to change the profession. I think the better (and structural) solution would be if you could learn Chinese philosophy the same way you learned Plato or Descartes – in graduate school – but that requires PhD-granting programs to hire the faculty who could provide such training, something they have largely declined to do.Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
Reply to  Amy Olberding
1 year ago

Amy,
I think that would be wonderful. But let’s mention another structural problem or two there: Programs aren’t going to move in their Leiter rankings by hiring faculty who do Chinese philosophy. You move in those by hiring in LEMM (or “core” as some would have it). That I imagine puts people in charge of hiring in hard positions. If admin is pushing hard to better rankings– as they always are at R1s– then that creates big pressures to hire in LEMM or something closer to LEMM, say metaethics, even if the faculty might actually think Chinese philosophy is a lot more interesting than the standard work in LEMM or metaethics. I mean I certainly think that but I can imagine cases where if I were making the hiring decisions I’d lean toward hiring in some of the trendier topics in “core”.
Also, Chinese is (I’m told) fantastically hard for English speakers to learn and I get the feeling departments are less and less supportive of students taking the time to learn a language anyway. According to the state department it takes about two years to learn Chinese whereas French and German take a few months to half a year. It’s a rare department that would allow a student to just take two years away to learn a language. And I think that’s getting rarer with the increased pressure to have graduate students in a timely way. Moreover, most departments don’t really do anything to make students aware of grants for language learning in my experience. I took a German class on a DAAD grant when I was a grad student but I only knew about it because I had friends in the German dept. I’m sure there were a lot of grants like that for other languages but we just weren’t told that they even existed.Report

Malcolm
Malcolm
Reply to  Sam Duncan
1 year ago

“Instead what one needs to show is why Chinese philosophy actually is interesting. What do individual Chinese philosophers offer that the philosophers already in the canon don’t? Why do you think Chinese philosophy is so cool? What are we missing by not reading Chinese philosophy?”

I assume you have looked at look at some of the top journals in the field of Chinese philosophy and “non-Western” philosophy such as Philosophy East & West and the Journal of Chinese Philosophy, and entries on Chinese philosophers in the SEP? If not, then, you are just not going to places where people show the things you want. Van Norden’s book, polemical thought it may be, (it’s titled “a manifesto”),also does some of this and points to resources in those directions.

People have been working in these fields for a long time. If you want to know why they think it’s cool, which is a great way to put the question (in my mind better than “what do they do which “the canon” can’t), you need to go to where that work is being done. No one is going to show up in your office to tell you!Report

colin klein
colin klein
Reply to  Malcolm
1 year ago

“No one is going to show up in your office to tell you!” = why it’s hard to convince people to hire in Chinese philosophy.

If the question is ‘what’s the value added?’, then for most subfields, hiring committees can answer it. If the only answer you can give is “Go read a bunch of stuff it’s all there!” then they’re going to hire another Rawlsian or whatever.Report

Malcolm
Malcolm
Reply to  colin klein
1 year ago

Sorry, just so I understand your reply, are you saying that people *should* be going to philosophy departments like missionaries with recent papers in Chinese philosophy, knocking on doors and explaining the good news that philosophy has been done elsewhere and it is interesting? I don’t see how stating an obvious fact (it takes reading some Chinese philosophy to understand it) makes it hard to convince people to hire in Chinese philosophy.

I genuinely don’t understand what the problem is in suggesting people do a bit of reading to understand the philosophy that they are saying isn’t interesting/lacks value etc. I’m not saying you need to learn classical Chinese, I’m saying check out the SEP, which is a standard resource for people wanting to learn about *any* field that they might want to teach or hire in. Or is the suggestion that if no one in this comment thread can give an answer to the question in the space of a comment thread, then there’s clearly no answer?

How about checking out the work of Amy Olberding (who commented up thread) and argues that etiquette/propriety (li) in Chinese philosophy is a concept missing in ethical philosophy, (https://www.amyolberding.net/) and the work of Bryan Van Norden on how shame is an important virtue, found in Mencius (Mengzi) (http://www.bryanvannorden.com/-academic-essays/#What_Is_Living), for starters? There are many, many more.Report

Colin Klein
Colin Klein
Reply to  Malcolm
1 year ago

I’m saying that if you want more hires in Chinese philosophy in your department, you should make the case from the bottom up by citing specific interesting examples that would engage with people in that department. I think Amy Olberding’s work is fantastic, and also a paradigmatic case of something where you can say ‘Hey, look, here’s a really engaging specific problem that Chinese philosophy appears to have paid more attention to than Western philosophy.” That (IMO) is going to be much more effective than telling people to go read more stuff. The pile of interesting philosophy that I *could* read now exceeds my remaining lifespan, so merely telling me that something is interesting is not a sufficient reason for me to go and do it. Telling me that something is relevant to an ongoing project of mine is.

And since we’re throwing around the ‘you’s a bit indiscriminately: to be clear, all of the Chinese philosophy I’ve read, I’ve read because someone has convinced me that there’s something interesting and relevant there. (So if we’re in the recommendation mood, yet *another* thing one could read — say — is my co-authored paper on Wang Chong that appeared in Asia Major a few years back, or my co-authored note on the historical extension of xin, or I’m pretty sure I’ve managed to work in Xunzi a few times here and there. Nothing big in the grand scheme of things, but still.). I’m reporting as an analytically trained philosopher who was successfully convinced to engage with Chinese philosophy. So I’m reporting a case where this was successfully done and how it was done. I’m also reporting on attempts that I’ve seen fail — and indeed, while Van Norden’s dialogue is funny and full of snark, note that *it doesn’t end with strawman colleague being convinced.* There is often a big gap between being right about who you should hire and convincing colleagues of that.Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
Reply to  Malcolm
1 year ago

Malcolm,
That’s just incredibly poor salesmanship and honestly it’s lazy. If you want someone to change their behavior you don’t tell them that it’s their responsibility to see why they’re wrong and you’re right. And it’s entirely unphilosphical. Socrates didn’t go around telling people that “Hey you’re wrong, but I don’t have time to explain why so here’s a reading list.” More importantly, that’s just not going to work if your goal is to actually change behavior. If anything that approach will get people to dig their heels in. You’re also strawmanning in exactly the way I was criticizing. Most philosophers wouldn’t deny Chinese philosophy has value and would be a cool thing to learn about and that teaching it well would benefit students. But there are so many things that’s true of and no one has time to learn about them all, especially those of us with 5/5 loads.Report

Malcolm
Malcolm
Reply to  Sam Duncan
1 year ago

Hi Sam,
Let me try one more time, because I think–I hope–that there are at least some ways in which you and Colin and I are all talking past each other. I do spend time talking with other philosophers about their work, trying to understand it, and if they are interested in teaching Chinese (or other “non-canonical” philosophy) I am more than happy to help! I’ve made teaching materials, created translations (in the area I work in, which isn’t Chinese), and so on. When it comes to the question of changing a department and impacting hiring practices, it’s important to have these kinds of conversations, absolutely.

And yes, you’re right that there is not enough time to learn everything, and there are so many things we could all be teaching, and teaching better (not to mention thinking about for our own research). I think that it is important that people working on the less-commonly-taught philosophies work to make their materials accessible to others. I’m trying to expand my own purview, myself, with the knowledge that there’s no end point at which I can say I’ve ever finished. That’s a great thing about our field.

At the same time, here is what is frustrating to me, as someone working in these areas. I see, year after year, the same conversations on philosophy blogs, where there are complaints that people need intro material or to be told why there is value in these traditions. Philosophers and scholars spend time replying, giving links, and so on, and then yet again, months later, the same conversation seems to play out on repeat–so much so that people like Amy Olberding have written on these patterns (https://philpapers.org/rec/OLBPEA) When there are resources readily available in a variety of places, a Google away, it’s hard not to think that an interlocutor’s requests are in bad faith, and are more along the lines of justifications for not taking these philosophies seriously. I am glad that your experience is that “Most philosophers wouldn’t deny Chinese philosophy has value and would be a cool thing to learn about and that teaching it well would benefit students.” I’ve not had that experience with most philosophers, though our samples may be very different.

In any case, I think that the links already given suggest some nice directions for how Chinese philosophy could be incorporated into an undergraduate classroom, if one so desires. I also find that people working in these areas tend to respond positively to emails asking for help, if no one in your department has the relevant expertise.

Let me conclude with one more way that Chinese philosophy is relevant. During this time of death and illness, where bereavement practices are drastically interrupted, we might want to look to Chinese philosophers such as Xunzi who reflected on the importance of ritual for human beings (a topic not often part of analytic philosophy, if I’m not mistaken). I’ll bow out now.Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
Reply to  Malcolm
1 year ago

Malcolm,
Sorry for my lack of charity there! I think we probably were talking past each other. I guess my though is this: People who really do have a hardcore bias against Chinese philosophy or anything non-western or really anything not in the Frege to whoever is trendy right now at Rutgers canon probably aren’t going to be swayed. They’re frustrating people but pointing out their intellectual shortcomings just won’t work. But a lot of us aren’t those guys. We see value in Chinese philosophy (I was really swayed on this by some really nice articles the NYRB ran). But we have reasons we haven’t added Chinese philosophy just yet, though we probably mean to get around to it and feel a tad guilty for not having done so. That makes things like van Norden’s polemics doubly galling to us. For one thing, the implication that those of us in teaching heavy jobs or jobs with other heavy commitments racist for not having integrated Chinese philosophy in our classes just screams academic privilege of a rather blinkered sort. Moreover, a lot of us would really like guys like van Norden to spend more time telling us how to do it. And stuff like Lai’s article is helpful and I’ll check out your resources. But where a lot of the one’s I’ve seen fall down are on the nuts and bolts decisions. What do people say use Confucius for in an ethics syllabus or Zhuangzi for in intro? Whom do they put them in dialogue with? Who gets cut to make space for them? Why are they better for the purposes of the class than the material they replace? (Also, I suspect that how open people are to Chinese philosophy and other things outside the “core” might depend on where they teach and where they are in the profession.)Report

Malcolm
Malcolm
Reply to  Sam Duncan
1 year ago

Hi Sam, popping back in to say that, yes, I think a lot of what may be happening is a matter of audience, and people (like myself) making assumptions about who is on the other side of a keyboard based on experience. I imagine BVN doesn’t have someone like you in mind, but rather others who are more obstinately arguing that Chinese philosophy is a bunch of aphorisms. I also got a bit frustrated, and I’m sorry I got a bit snarky.

Those nuts and bolts decisions are tough. My own sense is that there’s often no “right” answer, and it comes down to trying something out and seeing what happens. I tend to crib from existing syllabi, or read one or two secondary materials that do comparative work so I have a footing of who might be a good conversation partner. Once I’ve tried it, then I tweak for the next time as I discover resonances on my own.

Good luck in finding a way that works for you with a 5/5 load and everything else going on.Report

Another Post-BLM Grad Student
Another Post-BLM Grad Student
1 year ago

The problem is not so much whether Chinese philosophy should be taught in philosophy departments in anglophone countries as how to teach Chinese philosophy in the philosophy department.
Since some philosophy departments are teaching Islamic, Indian, or continental philosophy, I see no reason why not Chinese philosophy. But how to teach it?
In the U.S., the standard pedagogical procedures for a philosophical topic are: proposing a theory, providing arguments for and against it, and then criticizing these arguments. But I see few Philosophers of Chinese Philosophy in China (PCPCs) follow or acknowledge such procedures.
They despise definitions, arguments, and logic, and are unwilling to criticize those great figures they studied; they are more willing to interpret those scriptures in different ways (Confucius and Mencius always got it right. it is just the case we modern morons cannot reach their great wisdom).
If someone is suggesting her department teaches Chinese Philosophy as PCPCs, I’d agree that her fellows should consider more.Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  Another Post-BLM Grad Student
1 year ago

‘But I see few Philosophers of Chinese Philosophy in China (PCPCs) follow or acknowledge such procedures.
They despise definitions, arguments, and logic, and are unwilling to criticize those great figures they studied; they are more willing to interpret those scriptures in different ways (Confucius and Mencius always got it right. it is just the case we modern morons cannot reach their great wisdom).
If someone is suggesting her department teaches Chinese Philosophy as PCPCs, I’d agree that her fellows should consider more.’

A) What’s your evidence for this?

B) I think that at least the last bit about overly charitable readings is also true of a lot of standard history of Western Philosophy, done with broadly “analytic” methodology, particularly on “difficult” philosophers like Kant.Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  David Mathers
1 year ago

To be fair, I am a hypocrite here, since I haven’t provided evidence for B) either. But the point that this might not *only* be true of Philosophers of Chinese Phil. remains sound.Report

Another Post-BLM Grad Student
Another Post-BLM Grad Student
Reply to  David Mathers
1 year ago

For A): 2-3 years ago, I occasionally skimmed Chinese philosophy papers published in Chinese Tier-1 or -1.5 journals, such as Philosophical Research, History of Chinese Philosophy, and Philosophical Trends. A large portion of them are, from my perspectives, etymological or classical studies. Because in many papers, the authors just translate and compare two ancient ideas. No argument reframing, no decent criticism. And the authors are really bad at deduction and so fond of making analogy. They also lack what we might call the virtue of Clarity. They do not have many explanations and examples in their papers. Sometimes, after reading the paper, I was like ‘what? it’s finished? your conclusion is not even proven? you didn’t even make an attempt’
For B): I think you are right about this point. My claim is too strong here. My feeling is that many PCPCs are not simply academics. They are faithful adherents to some ancient thinkers, even if these thinkers’ thoughts are not well justified. This faith might not be a very serious issue. But I personally prefer scholars with value-free spirit.Report

Tracy
Tracy
Reply to  Another Post-BLM Grad Student
1 year ago

I agree with Another Post-BLM Grad Student. I grew up in China, where my native language is Chinese, and I must admit that this tradition of Chinese philosophical education that you speak of is true. I believe this tradition, or cultural/ethnic custom, comes from the pre-Qin style of education that has been passed down from generation to generation, at the time of which teaching was like a missionary style of instructions, similar to Jesus Christ or Siddhartha and their followers. Nevertheless, we should not actually blame all ancient Chinese philosophers. I have evidence to conclude that this is mostly attributed to Confucianism. The Confucian system demanded obedience in the teacher-student relationship by presupposing the latter’s spiritual subordination. (e.g., 送东阳马生序 by Song Lian mentioned that 余立侍左右,援疑质理,俯身倾耳以请;或遇其叱咄,色愈恭,礼愈至,不敢出一言以复;俟其欣悦,则又请焉。 “I stood next to the teacher and waited on him, asking questions, inquiring about reason, leaning down and putting my ear close to him. If he gets angry, I should make a respectful face, put on more considerate manners, and didn’t dare say a word. When his face calmed down, I should ask questions again.”) As I am sure you are aware, even after thousands of years, public education in mainland China still has this pathetic pattern of teaching.
It is nothing wrong to point out and criticize the miserable parts of Chinese philosophy education if there sure are. After all, we are not denying the Chinese philosophy itself.Report

Edward Cantu
Reply to  Tracy
1 year ago

Tracy, very interesting; thanks for posting this.Report

Patrick S. O'Donnell
1 year ago

“They despise definitions, arguments, and logic, and are unwilling to criticize those great figures they studied; they are more willing to interpret those scriptures in different ways (Confucius and Mencius always got it right. it is just the case we modern morons cannot reach their great wisdom).” One could write such nonsense only if one is absolutely ignorant of those who have taught and/or are teaching Chinese philosophy: Roger T. Ames, David L. Hall, Henry Rosemont, Jr., Kim-chon Chong, Antonio S. Cua, Bo Mou, Chad Hansen, Stephen C. Angle, Herbert Fingarette, Mary I. Bockover, Paul R. Goldin, A.C. Graham, Chung-ying Cheng, Ronnie L. Littlejohn, Chris Fraser, Philip J. Ivanhoe, JeeLoo Liu, David S. Nivison, Justin Tiwald, Hans-Georg Miller and of course Bryan Van Norden are among a larger number of philosophers who have taught or are teaching Chinese philosophy (this is far from an exhaustive list and I apologize to those who might have been included but are not listed here).Report

PM
PM
Reply to  Patrick S. O'Donnell
1 year ago

I think you overreacted. They are referring to “Philosophers of Chinese Philosophy in China (PCPCs)”. And to be honest, I think that they said is more or less true.Report

Another Post-BLM Grad Student
Another Post-BLM Grad Student
Reply to  Patrick S. O'Donnell
1 year ago

My apologies for offending some of you. But among the names you listed above, it seems only Roger Ames is a PCPC. Bo Mou teaches at San Jose SU, Chung-ying Cheng at Hawaii U. And I venture to say the majority of these scholars got trained in anglophone countries and are influenced by analytic tradition.Report

Another Post-BLM Grad Student
Another Post-BLM Grad Student
Reply to  Another Post-BLM Grad Student
1 year ago

BTW, there are hundreds of PCPCs in China, whereas you only listed Roger Ames. I think this already indicated something.Report

Patrick S. O'Donnell
1 year ago

I regret having left out Alexus McLeod, who is a brilliant young professor (now tenured!) in the fieldReport

Malthus
Malthus
1 year ago

Bryan Van Norden doesn’t grapple with the practical question of which fields should be cut so that more Chinese Philosophy can be taught by philosophers housed in the Department of Philosophy. If we hire more people in Chinese Philosophy for lines in Philosophy departments, then that means fewer people in worthy areas of philosophical study are hired in Philosophy departments.

The suggestion that people working primarily in Chinese Philosophy should have a tenure-home in East Asian Studies or Chinese Studies or other non-Philosophy departments is a way of having more philosophers on campus, which should be our goal. Frankly, if we can get Kant scholars hired in the German department or Rawlsians into American Studies, then let’s do it. If we can get more people in political philosophy hired in Political Science, then let’s do it. If we can get more philosophers hired in Black Studies, isn’t that a good thing?

Van Norden seems quite interested in fighting a turf war for bragging rights about who has an office in the building that the Philosophy Department is in. With a pandemic-induced recession with no end in sight and universities terminating tenured faculty, maybe we can cooperate to achieve the worthy goal of having more philosophers employed teaching philosophy, and care much less about which department they have tenure in.Report

Colin Klein
Colin Klein
Reply to  Malthus
1 year ago

Yeah, this was my first reaction as well. Arguments that “X ought not be taught in philosophy” are usually rent-seeking arguments: in the background it’s always “X ought not be taught rather than Y, where Y is something I care about more.” I’ve heard similarly bad arguments given for not hiring in philosophy of language, epistemology, and philosophy of mind (they are just linguistics, dead subdisciplines, and subfields of philosophy of language, respectively).

I also heartily agree that it is short-sighted not to think of it as an opportunity to build up connections with EAS/Chinese Studies and get more philosophers hired there. Part of the problem with finding good people is that Classical Chinese is hard, and good scholarship is harder still, and it may just be that EAS departments provide a much better training in the foundations you need. There is a similar symbiotic relationship that grows up between Classics and Ancient Philosophy, and I take it that nobody thinks that this is confining Ancient Philosophy to an area studies ghetto. Classics training often produces really good Ancient Philosophers, and everyone is cool with that. The attitude that if it ain’t being done in a Philosophy department it must not be good philosophy –that may be one also worth examining.Report

Malcolm
Malcolm
Reply to  Malthus
1 year ago

“If we hire more people in Chinese Philosophy for lines in Philosophy departments, then that means fewer people in worthy areas of philosophical study are hired in Philosophy departments.”

Doesn’t this conditional assume that the people hired in Chinese philosophy don’t count as “people in worthy areas of philosophical study”? Otherwise, the net number of hires remains the same, it’s just that some of those hires are excellent candidates pursuing Chinese philosophy as well. And for what it’s worth, people who work in Chinese philosophy typically have had to learn analytic philosophy sufficiently to teach it, if not engage with it in their research. The converse is typically not true, as some comments here suggest.Report

Malthus
Malthus
Reply to  Malcolm
1 year ago

I made no assumption that Chinese Philosophy isn’t a worthy area of study. To the contrary, I want a lot of people working in Chinese Philosophy to be hired, and for them not to be engaged in a zero-sum game to get a job in a Department of Philosophy.

From the perspective of hiring more philosophers for the university, it would be better all things considered if people specializing in Chinese Philosophy were hired in Chinese Studies, which enables someone who can’t access a tenure-home outside of the Philosophy Department to be hired. Hiring two philosophers strictly dominates over hiring one.

Colin Klein in his response to me identified the likely very suspect idea: “The attitude that if it ain’t being done in a Philosophy department it must not be good philosophy –that may be one also worth examining.”Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
1 year ago

I think that teaching Chinese (and Indian) phil. in addition to Western historical figures is a good idea, and that not doing so is probably at least halfway to “racist” in some standard senses of that vexed term. But one failure mode I worry about is the following here. The time spent on Chinese (and other non-Western philosophy) means less time has to be spent on something else. I worry that people will see familiarity with all of the Western “greats” as absolutely necessary, and so “more Chinese Phil.” will in practice also mean ‘slant things more towards history of phil. and away from contemporary work’. And that strikes me as something we should be careful of doing *without realizing we’re doing it and thinking about the costs and benefits”. (It’s also my personal opinion that undergrad teaching already overemphasizes history over just learning to *do* philosophy, but this isn’t the time to defend that.)Report

Colin Klein
Colin Klein
1 year ago

FWIW I think that it would also help if Chinese Philosophy was identified with something more than what happened in the Warring States. Here are a few more guesses, based on anecdote, about why people are resistant to including Chinese philosophy:
– Chinese philosophy is Confucius, Mencius, and Zhuangzi. It fossilized sometime before the Qin, and nothing happened before or since. Nice historical bits there, but not enough time to teach everything, and we should teach living traditions.
– Doing Chinese philosophy means writing about the surprising similarities between Confucius and Aristotle. The several thousand papers already written on this are probably sufficient.
– The role of teaching Chinese philosophy is to emphasize its deep otherness and alienness to our Western ways of thinking. It is all about holism and collectivism and the lack of count nouns and whatnot. People like it because it feels like it fills whatever spiritual hole Westerners find in Western philosophy. Which is cool and all, but there is real scholarship to be done.

None of these are true. But I think the common focus on a few standard Warring states philosophers, and a few standard aspects of their thought, is what entrenches these stereotypes.Report

AmateurPhilosopher
AmateurPhilosopher
1 year ago

One reason not to teach the history of Chinese philosophy is that one thinks that contemporary philosophy is much better and more numerous than philosophy done hundreds or thousands of years ago. There are probably a fair number of philosophers that think we shouldn’t be teaching western history e.g. Plato either. I’m one, though I’m am amateur. If one wants to teach Kantian ethics, why not find a contemporary exposition that is well written and argued and teach that. I’d guess the same could be said about classical Chinese philosophers.Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
1 year ago

Malthus and Colin Klein have already gotten at this, but I think it’s worth underscoring that the real reason a lot of people don’t teach Chinese philosophy is that there will be costs for doing so and they’re not convinced that the costs are worth paying. One cost is preparing to teach it competently, which will take time that could be used to prep on other worthwhile new topics or make other needed changes to one’s classes. The other cost is that time in class is a finite resource. If you add something you either have to shove in more reading, which means less attention to what’s already there, or more likely get rid of a reading or classroom activity to make space. And there might be actual monetary costs for students at least. A lot of us have set up our classes to be textbook free and one thing that makes this easy is that there are great open educational resources for most western philosophers like Early Modern Texts, which I use for Mill and Kant in my ethics classes. It’s a little harder to find Aristotle or Plato translations but they exist and I know enough to know which ones are pretty reliable. That’s not true of Chinese philosophy. Yes I can find open educational resources for that but I have no idea if they’re as good as Bennett or even the trusty (if a little fusty) Ross translation of Aristotle. Adding a book that’s even $20 can be a big deal for some students. So coming up with good copyright free translations of Chinese philosophy or even just pointing the rest of us toward them if they exist would be helpful in ways that polemics aren’t.
Anyway, if philosophers want Chinese philosophy more widely taught they need to do one of two things and preferably both: 1. Convince other philosophers it’s worth the costs. 2. Lower those costs. Doing both isn’t glamorous and they aren’t going to get the kind of attention that polemical accusations of provincialism or outright racism do, but unlike those it might actually create the change people who advocate for Chinese philosophy say they want.Report

Rob Byer
Rob Byer
Reply to  Sam Duncan
1 year ago

While I don’t read Mandarin or Old/Archaic Chinese, Robert Eno is a scholar that does, and has teaching translations of a lot of classical works of Chinese philosophy at his website.

https://chinatxt.sitehost.iu.edu/Resources.htmlReport

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
Reply to  Rob Byer
1 year ago

Rob,
Cool thanks! But…. and I hate to be a wet blanket with this, do any scholars of Chinese philosophy want to weigh in on how good these are? I’m not at all saying they aren’t and I have every reason to believe they are, but I really worry about that kind of thing (I’ve seen how badly people can distort Kant and Hegel in translation). With ancient or early modern I can run translations by people I know in the fields and get a quick reply. Because there are so few people doing Chinese philosophy it’s just not as easy for me.Report

Lukas Wolf
Lukas Wolf
1 year ago

I hope the point generalizes to other parts of ignored philosophy. In which case the point would be, I think, to look more globally / less west-biased for philosophers / ideas that challenge our assumption and invite us to think about some aspects more, or think about them from a different perspective. Discussing non-canonical work not only brings in new ways of doing philosophy, but it also emphasizes new things and brings refreshing new perspectives on the world. Certainly for a student of philosophy this can be very useful in widening their perspectives.

But this also brings me to a worry: We should not fall into the trap of valuing Chinese or Indian philosophy only because of its *similarity* to our current way of doing philosophy. I’ve seen that happening a few times: “See, these Indian philosophers have theories of logic and argumentation *just like ours!* [and so they are worth studying]” Not only do I sincerely doubt whether that is actually the case (is Christmas just like Sinterklaas? In one way, yes. But it’s more misleading than useful to say so), but emphasizing the perceived similarity to our modern western philosophy seems to be precisely *not* why we would want to spend time on these philosophers. (While it would still be advantagious to at least show people that, indeed, people of non-western societies are also really smart, I believe it more often would have the opposite effect on students, namely of reinforcing beliefs of western superiority, since we would judge their merit from our Western perspective and with our contemporary high standards). So instead should rather embrace their differences, accept the fact that their quirks and approaches might take some getting used to, and try to learn *from* the dissimilarities rather than pretend they are like us. It is, after all, exactly that they are *not* like 20th-century analytic philosophy which makes them worth studying.

Which may also answer those philosophers who question why they are relevant for their course: No, not all of them are going to be relevant or worth your time. If you teach a course on language, it’s likely neither relevant to include Descartes nor Confuscius. But you might want to consider introducing some Indian philosophy on language, which would be relevant. And just like how a course on causation may want to look at occasionalism in Christianity and Islam, a course on ethics does have a good reason to look at Confucius.

Lastly: It sounds highly unlikely to me that in all of recorded human history, nobody outside of the west has ever said anything worthwhile on . And if that is somehow the case, one may wonder why, if literally the rest of humanity apparently has no interest whatsoever in , why *they* are the ones being irrelevant?Report

Christian Coseru
Christian Coseru
1 year ago

We’ve been here before––debating the benefits (and pitfalls) of diversifying the curriculum in seemingly questionable directions or for bad reasons. Last time I got involved, the issue was consumer demand (and a bit of identity politics) prompted by a grad student’s rather public departure from a top program because of lack of representation for non-Western philosophy.

https://www.newappsblog.com/2014/09/philosophys-western-bias-and-what-can-be-done-about-it.html

As I argued then, and continue to insist now, scolding an entire profession for its perceived parochialism is not going to earn you a great deal of support, least of all among those in a position to make a difference. Sure, there may well be sociological reasons why decades of excellent scholarship in Chinese, Indian, Buddhist, etc. philosophy have failed to make a difference. But there are methodological reasons as well, and these tend to get overlooked because, well, one is supposed to close ranks and present a united front when pleading the case of non-Western philosophy. I’m not saying these methodological reasons are the main stumbling block, but not acknowledging their role in weakening resolve is not helpful either. As others on this thread have noted, if you insist that Chinese Philosophy has scope beyond the confines of intellectual history, then you must give arguments. Some may think this is a wrongheaded way to go about it. That’s not how you approach Chinese Philosophy. But when questions of method and approach take center stage things tend to get pretty fractious.

How fractious? Well, consider some of the problems that confront anyone working on Indian rather than Chinese Philosophy, though from what little I know of the latter they’re probably just as relevant:

#1 The Problem of Canon and Style.
#2 The Problem of Reliable Evidence.
#3 The Constraint of Genealogy.
#4 The Problem of Modernity.
#5 The Metaphilosophical Problem.
#6 The Problem of Authenticity.

More about it here:
https://brewminate.com/indian-philosophy-in-the-global-cosmopolis/

Are these problems insurmountable? Not in principle. Do they explain why even folks who might otherwise be sympathetically disposed toward the cause of Chinese Philosophy have not jumped headlong into it? Perhaps, especially if an affinity for Chinese culture, love of the classics or text-critical scholasticism is not what got you into philosophy in the first place.Report

Hank
1 year ago

I think the real reason people oppose teaching Eastern philosophy is that they don’t know enough to teach it! This is such a shame because Eastern thinking excels in dealing with highly complex, messy, and connected systems. There is no absolute “centers” in many Eastern philosophies as there usually is in Western thinking. There’s no such thing as the ideal Form of manliness or apple-ness, just different people collectively agreeing on what’s manly or apple-y in different contexts. I believe by balancing the Western and Eastern worldviews, we can solve a lot of problems we currently face in our world.

To do what I can, I’ve begun making youtube videos to try to explain Eastern thinking from a Western point of view. It’s certainly not a topic that will get me millions of views, but it’s quite fun in and of itself.Report