Letting Different Kinds of Philosophy Be Their Own Thing


Last week, Harvey Lederman (UT Austin) delivered some remarks at Academia Sinica on what he referred to as “the path forward for Chinese philosophy.”

Below is a brief excerpt.

It will likely be of interest not just to those doing Chinese philosophy, or other forms of “non-Western” philosophy, but also historians of philosophy in general, and philosophers working on the edges of, or outside of, what is considered mainstream in the United States and other parts of the world in which analytic philosophy is dominant.

[Hung Liu, “Bluebird”]

In the US, in analytic philosophy departments, scholars of Chinese philosophy want philosophers to respect them, and pay attention to them. Some think the best way to get their attention to find a way that the texts add something to a contemporary debate. Some think it is to get the texts to speak to a pattern of ideas they know philosophers respect, like consequentialism or virtue ethics. And some seek for ways in which the texts might offer self-help in the world today…

Each of the three ideas seems to me wrong in different ways. For the first, scholarly reading of a historical text (Chinese or Western) is in my view almost never the most efficient way of making progress on contemporary philosophical questions. (This sentence will make me a lot of enemies, but there it is.) For the second, there are already many excellent textbooks on utilitarianism or virtue ethics. Collapsing the variety of ideas in Classical Chinese philosophy into a curriculum of well-known ideas threatens to lose much of interest in our subject, while failing to add anything to the existing philosophical landscape. And for the third, if what one wants is the respect of analytic philosophers, who value abstract theoretical inquiry above all, developing self-help guides is not the way to go.

Practically speaking—and this is my main, firmly held view—if scholars of Chinese philosophy want to win the respect of analytic philosophers, we will do it most effectively by doing our jobs, as I described them above: by reading the texts with rigor, care, and precision. We will do so most effectively by formulating genuine problems in our understanding of these texts, and then resolving them. Many of my colleagues who study Chinese philosophy are frustrated by what they see as a lack of recognition for their work. But many of my colleagues in “core analytic” philosophy are frustrated by what they see as a lack of rigor, care, and precision in scholarship on Chinese philosophy. We will win these philosophers’ respect most effectively by doing our jobs as I described them above. We lose their respect when we try to change our job, falling over ourselves to try to win their attention.

Less pragmatically but in a way more importantly, I also believe that if we give up on our job, we lose something of intrinsic value that it was our job (and no one else’s) to preserve. In the US, at least, we are the guardians of this tradition; we are its impersonators in our generation.

It’s true: our texts are not easy to understand, and they resist paraphrase. But their difficulty and resistance to paraphrase is a virtue, both for us and our students. It is in part owing to their difficulty that the discipline of reading them closely is a good way to teach and learn the virtues of respect, reverence, and charity. It is in part owing to their resistance to paraphrase that they help us to teach and learn precision and care in understanding others, even (in fact, especially) when we disagree passionately with them. The texts can be alluring, inspiring, and compelling. But they can also be sexist, inegalitarian, and ugly. Part of what makes it worth reading and teaching them is that, when you think you know what they will or should say next, they say something different. Reading them carefully and closely teaches us to come to terms with this possibility. It teaches us to keep listening, because even when we think we know what someone else will say, they may surprise us.

You can read the whole set of remarks here.

Discussion welcome.

Subscribe
Notify of
guest

9 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Ian
Ian
2 months ago

So while I agree with the conclusion that Chinese (and by extension, other non-Western and historical) philosophers will earn respect by understanding rigorously the texts they are concerned with, I’m unsure why this would be inconsistent with making these texts also relevant to contemporary concerns.

Philosophers, in my experience, only want to read your work if it bears down on questions and concerns they are working on or are interested in. I don’t understand how you’re going to make that happen without contemporary relevance? Maybe reading your work isn’t part of gaining respect?

AEG
AEG
Reply to  Ian
2 months ago

I think the idea is that the point is to bring people over to an interest in concerns other than the ones already occupying their minds (in this case, the concerns raised by Chinese philosophy) rather than to aim to convince people that this other philosophical tradition happens to bear on the concerns they already address in their own work. By showing you are working on new concerns that are nevertheless genuinely interesting, you validate the value of the distinct field of study and the separate tradition of philosophical thought. But by aiming to address already existing debates, in the terms and in light of the problems raised by these existing debates, you make the distinct field of study seem just like a needlessly convoluted and indirect way of trying to discuss topics that are already receiving forthright and direct attention. (I should say: as someone who works on areas outside the analytic mainstream though not on Chinese philosophy, I agree strongly with a great deal of this post.)

Jordan
Jordan
Reply to  Ian
2 months ago

I think the more generous reading of Lederman is not that there’s an absolute dichotomy between these two, but that emphasizing one over the other has consequences. If you privilege contemporary relevance over faithfulness to the source material, rigorously understood, you risk losing what was really intrinsically interesting about the source material (and hence in the end losing the relevance debate, too). The point is not to reject contemporary relevance outright, but to not seek it directly, to let it grow organically out of real, non-instrumental devotion to texts and arguments one has already decided are worthy of deep reflection. (And, of course, to be willing to risk the possibility that one never achieves that relevance, or only does so much later.)

John
John
Reply to  Ian
1 month ago

Unfortunately, what counts as having “contemporary relevance” in most of Anglo-American philosophy is ephemeral at best, and nearly entirely forgotten within yen years. Trying to gain the attention of analytic philosophers by attempting to demonstrate the supposed relevance of one’s work in other areas of philosophy to their concerns is both a fool’s errand and a nearly inherently unworthy goal.

Helen De Cruz
2 months ago

I have some thoughts on this piece and wrote them up for the Philosophers’ Cocoon. Thank you Harvey for such a stimulating discussion — https://philosopherscocoon.typepad.com/blog/2023/09/philosophical-competence-language-and-the-perplexing-gavagai-problem.html

Brad Cokelet
2 months ago

I’m sympathetic to the direction Harvey is encouraging as one good avenue to support but the either/or thinking strikes me as odd. Why not let many motives/aims for studying ancient texts bloom?

There also seems to be a straw man that pops up and narrows the discussion unduly. I study and teach ancient Chinese texts in part to think more creatively and open mindedly about contemporary ethics. But I don’t think this is the most “efficient” method. I doubt efficiency in this broad case can even be measured in prospect. But I study ancient Chinese texts in part as one means to enriching contemporary debates, just as Bernard Williams (for example) valued the study of Ancient Greek texts. It’s not a strategy I’d tell a grad student to put all their chips on but who would? I can’t figure out if my view is a target he has but it seems to be and I’m not sure what the objection is.

It seems one overarching question is about what will earn the respect of contemporary analytic philosophy as a whole (I think this is one main question?). If so, perhaps we should look at the way western figures such as Kant regained respect. An initial thought is that Strawsons Bounds of Sense and Rawls’ teaching and contemporary inheritance project (taken up by students) were what did the trick in Kant’s case. And that example makes me doubt the pragmatic wisdom of the “retreat to our own corner and do excellent exegetical work” strategy. It seems to suggest the paths you reject might be more efficient means to respect. But that’s of course very speculative

Harvey Lederman
2 months ago

Thanks for posting this Justin! I posted some clarification to a line of criticism that was recurring in some comments: https://twitter.com/LedermanHarvey/status/1707112056351052158

Daniel
Daniel
2 months ago

The art of unambiguous speech is seldom practiced in this generation. If analytic philosophy is able to reverse this trend, then many of our current problems would cease to be a problem.

Jackson Hawkins
Jackson Hawkins
2 months ago

Those of us in the Anglosphere who are interested in figures and topics primarily associated with the “Continental tradition” face a similar struggle. Frequently, the pressure is heavy to present the work of, say, Heidegger, in a way palatable to philosophers accustomed to the analytic style. But is this a commendable pursuit? As is well known, a divide exists within the anglophone Heidegger circle on this question, and one’s feelings about it will largely hinge on one’s feelings about Hubert Dreyfus’s interpretive programme. There is also an emerging generational fracture between the old-guard “speak of Heidegger as Heidegger would speak of Heidegger” crowd, and the rising generation of scholars more willing to bend Heidegger’s idiolect to their purposes.
At any rate, the point I wanted to make is simply that the type of academic pressure gestured at in this article is very real, and many of us would be overjoyed to see an expansion of the set of “acceptable” topics in the analytic world.