Thursday, May 01, 2008

Unsolicited Advice to Students and Their Advisors (by guest blogger Bryan Van Norden)

This blog entry is by Bryan Van Norden, Professor in the Philosophy Department and the Department of Chinese and Japanese at Vassar College.

Thank you to Eric for kindly allowing me to be a guest blogger for the next few weeks. The first topic I would like to write about is the importance of knowing the secondary literature in one's field.

1. The Problem

I recently wrote a Letter to the Editor that was published in the Proceedings and Addresses of the APA. In it, I described my experience when my department was interviewing job candidates. I noted that we met many terrific young philosophers, and ended up hiring someone we are delighted with. However, we also discovered that many job candidates are not familiar with even the most basic secondary literature on their areas of research (including the work of their own supposed advisors). I concluded the letter by reminding my fellow philosophers of the obvious (I hope) fact that professors have an obligation to train their graduate students. I was writing primarily about "mainstream" philosophy, but my experience has been the same in Chinese philosophy.

So my claim is that it is crucial to know the secondary literature and that far too many people get doctorates without knowing it (or even knowing that it is important).

2. Why Is It a Problem?

I don't know how many people would actually come out and say it, but I think there is a common view that it is not important to know the secondary literature. This view has several sources.

Isn't what's really important that we read the PRIMARY texts?

It's crucial that we read the primary texts! But it is not enough to read the primary texts.

Oh yeah? Why not?

Newton famously said, "If I have seen farther than others, it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants." By this he meant that his work would have been impossible without building upon the previous research of people like Euclid, Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler. Where would we be today if Newton had remained ignorant of them? So even in natural science, which people often think of as an enterprise that can "prove" things independently of tradition, it is impossible to achieve progress without building upon previous research.

But I want to think independently! I don't want to just parrot what people in the past have said on this topic.

Good! But you won't be able to do so unless you become self-aware about what assumptions you bring to the text. Descartes set the tone for much of modern philosophy when he said he was going to reject tradition and custom and just think for himself. Almost everyone today proudly rejects the content of Descartes' claims, but it is far too common to implicitly assume that the methodology (confronting reality with one's individual thoughts) is correct. But the methodology is fundamentally flawed as well. Descartes was certainly original in many ways, but (as any serious historian of modern philosophy will tell you) his work is deeply dependent upon its Platonistic, Aristotelian, Augustinean and Scholastic sources. ("I think therefore I am" is a paraphrase of a line from Augustine's Confessions.)

The issue isn't whether we should be original or not. The issue is whether we can be original and insightful while we are ignorant.

Give me an example of what you are talking about.

Okay. I have heard more than one person ingenuously discuss "Mengzi's claim that human nature is originally good." There's just one problem: Mengzi never says that. Mengzi says that human nature is good, simpliciter. The "originally" is a Neo-Confucian gloss. Even people who have read the primary text often assume the Neo-Confucian reading. But this is the sort of issue raised in the secondary literature.

In general, the problem is that you can't be open-minded if you don't know what the alternatives are to your view.

If the secondary literature is so interesting, just tell me what it says.

What would you say to a student who told you, "I didn't do the reading. Just tell me what it said and I'll argue with you about whether what you say is right."

But don't you think dialogue is important?

Absolutely! But the secondary literature is PART of the dialogue. Besides, if you don't know the secondary literature and I do, how productive will my conversation with you be?

But research is hard work. It's more fun to just chat about my impressions of the text.

Aw, I suspected that was the root of it all! ;)

3. The Solution

I'd like to conclude with a list of what are, in my opinion, the absolutely essential secondary readings for anyone interested in pre Qin dynasty Chinese philosophy. (One could easily add to this list, but I think it would be hard to say anything on it is optional for someone who claims to have an AOS in this area.)

Chan, Alan K.L., ed. Mencius: Contexts and Interpretations (U Hawaii Press).

Cook, Scott, ed. Hiding the World in the World: Uneven Discourses on the Zhuangzi (SUNY Press).

Csikszentmihalyi, Mark and PJ Ivanhoe, eds., Religious and Philosophical Aspects of the Laozi (SUNY Press).

Creel, Herrlee. Confucius and the Chinese Way (out of print).

Fingarette, Herbert. Confucius -- the Secular as Sacred (Harper Torchbooks).

Goldin, Paul. After Confucius (U of Hawaii Press).

Graham, A.C. Disputers of the Tao (Open Court).

Graham, A.C. Studies in Chinese Philosophy and Philosophical Literature (SUNY Press).

Hall, David and Roger Ames. Thinking through Confucius. (Or at least one other book in the trilogy they wrote, which includes Thinking from the Han and Anticipating China.)

Hansen, Chad. Language and Logic in Ancient China (U of Michigan Press). (Or his A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought.)

Harbsmeier, Christoph. Language and Logic. Vol 7, Part 1 of Joseph Needham, ed., Science and Civilisation in China (Cambridge U Press). (Or A.C. Graham's Later Mohist Logic, Ethics and Science. Some of the same material is also covered in Graham's Disputers of the Tao.)

Ivanhoe, Philip J. Confucian Moral Self Cultivation. 2nd ed. (Hackett).

Kjellberg, Paul and PJ Ivanhoe, eds., Essays on Skepticism, Relativism and Ethics in the Zhuangzi (SUNY Press).

Kline, Thornton and PJ Ivanhoe, eds., Virtue, Nature and Agency in the Xunzi (Hackett).

Kohn, Livia and Michael LaFargue, Lao-tzu and the Tao-te-ching (SUNY Press).

Kupperman, Joel. Learning from Asian Philosophy(Oxford).

Liu, Xiusheng and P.J. Ivanhoe, eds., Essays on the Moral Philosophy of Mengzi (Hackett).

Mair, Victor. Experimental Essays on Chuang-tzu (U of Hawaii).

Nivison, David S. The Ways of Confucianism (Open Court).

Schwartz, Benjamin. The World of Thought in Ancient China (Harvard/Belknap).

Shun, Kwong-loi. Mencius and Early Chinese Thought (Stanford U Press).

Tu, Wei-ming. Centrality and Commonality (SUNY Press).

Van Norden, Bryan W., ed. Confucius and the Analects: New Essays (Oxford). (This is the only secondary anthology in English on this topic.)

Wong, David. Natural Moralities (Oxford).

Yearley, Lee H. Mencius and Aquinas: Theories of Virtue and Conceptions of Courage (SUNY Press).

44 comments:

Jonathan Ichikawa said...

I assume you have in mind mostly people who work primarily in historical philosophy -- that's where the distinction between primary and secondary literature obviously makes sense.

Do you think there's an obvious correlate of your advice for graduate students working in, say, contemporary metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, or philosophy of language?

Manyul said...

Hi Bryan; I agree in part with the spirit of your advice. The part I agree with is that it's definitely not good to work in a vacuum, as if no one had written on the topic prior to oneself. On the other hand, I'm not sure it is quite right to declare a list of secondary pieces so confidently as essential to have read. Surely there is room for debate, in principle, regarding the optionality of any one of the items on your list, based on the shape or methodology of one's own research project.

I say this as a general point, on behalf of imagined others, in addition to being motivated by my own objection to a couple of items on your list as *essential*. Just as an example, I personally think of Kupperman's book as interesting and useful for a certain approach to pre-Qin texts--"comparative" philosophy in a broad sense--but I don't think it's essential for some other approaches--say, for an approach that is primarily aimed at historical reconstruction.

I'm also inclined to think of promoting such a list as a canon building project that can't help but be political (in the broad sense) in nature, whether intentionally or not. If I am not particularly interested in the sort of project that Chad Hansen has, based on having read an article of his, why should I have read his book in order to be judged competent, *globally* speaking, in the field? Being judged *globally* incompetent, based on the criterion that I'm not competent with respect to Hansen's particular approach, would potentially jeopardize my career, but would that be clearly justified from a professionally ethical point of view?

I think there's room for genuine concern in our field for promoting some sense of uniformity regarding standards of competence, but maybe it doesn't have to seem so much like imposition of an orthodoxy.

By the way, so I won't be misconstrued, let me say that I offer this in the spirit of constructive dialogue about how to improve our shared field, not to insinuate that you're doing something with less than noble motives.

Bryan said...

Dear Jonathan,

Good points! You are right that by "secondary literature" I primarily intended work about the history of philosophy. However, my experience during our job interviews has been that many candidates in non-historical fields have not read what might be described as the basic primary texts in their own fields, including work by their own advisors. I can only blame the advisors for this failure to train their own students.

So, yes, I think there is an obvious correlate of my advice to those working in other fields.

Bryan said...

Dear Manyul,

1. You say that "based on having read an article of his," you are not "particularly interested in the sort of project Chad Hansen has." However, in your blog you are discussing the notion of "analogical reasoning" in Mengzi. Chad's "project" is relevant to what you are writing about, since he (a) offers a sustained critique of Mengzi's reasoning, (b) is generally concerned with issues of rationality, reasoning and truth in ancient China.

And certainly anyone working on "analogical reasoning" in Mengzi needs to also have read what Graham and Harbsmeier have to say on argumentation and truth in Chinese thought, as well as D.C. Lau's classic paper (included as an appendix in his Mencius translation).

2. I absolutely agree that "there is room for debate" over the list. For example, if someone said that they had read Kupperman's Classic Asian Philosophy (Oxford) instead of Learning from Asian Philosophy, I would deem them at least minimally competent.

Now, if someone wanted to deny that Kupperman was an important and interesting figure in the field, I would disagree. However, even if they said that, they would have to acknowledge that he teaches in one of the handful of programs where one can get a doctorate in Chinese philosophy. (Chenyang Li is a student of his.) So to be literate in what is happening in the field, you have to know his work.

3. I find the distinction between "historical reconstruction" and "comparative philosophy" somewhat artificial. It is a simple truism of hermeneutics in particular and epistemology in general that there is no way to approach anything without bringing a conceptual framework to it. So any time we read a text from ancient China, we are implicitly engaged in the project of identifying how it fits, or doesn't, with categories and concept we already have. All philosophy is comparative philosophy.

For example, you read Mengzi as being very similar to a standard twentieth century Anglo-American intuitionist. This is no doubt in part because that is framework you picked up in an analytic graduate program. So you are operating in a comparative framework too, even if you do not label it as such.

4. I think it is hard to accuse my list as promoting an "orthodoxy," since I include so many people I disagree with. For example, I have been one of the most vocal and insistent critics of the work of Hall/Ames, Hansen and Tu. But whether I like it or not, they train graduate students, they publish works that influence others, and they take stands on issues relevant to my own work.

5. I'd be interested to know the following. Of the items on my list, how many have you (a) read cover to cover, or (b) read at least a couple of chapters from?

And if you haven't read them, how do you know they aren't important?

KenF said...

"And if you haven't read them, how do you know they aren't important?"

The thing is, time and energy are so limited. Let's say I am interested in Hume. You can allocate time and energy in two directions. Either reading the primary (and secondary) sources that *Hume* read, going deep into Hume's background and milieu. Or you can focus energy and time in the other direction, reading commentary on Hume.

I think if your goal is to actually understand what Hume was trying to say, to understand him on his own terms, you're best off looking backward. The secondary literature, of course, can help you in that process. But I think focusing on the current debates *about* Hume would not be as profitable as focusing on the then-current debates that *Hume* was interested in.

I am still a novice in these matters, but just looking at the secondary literature on Hume, it seems worth skimming, but not delving into in depth. It's so obsessed with fitting him into this mold or that, arguging that he "really" supported this position or that, turning him into a mascot for this view or that.

Bryan said...

Dear Kenf,

You can allocate time and energy in two directions. Either reading the primary (and secondary) sources that *Hume* read, going deep into Hume's background and milieu. Or you can focus energy and time in the other direction, reading commentary on Hume.

This is what is technically known as a "false dichotomy." We don't have to do one or the other. We can do both.

I'm a huge fan of primary sources. I teach from them (in translation) in my classes, I read Chinese philosophy in the original language, and I read broadly in early Chinese texts, including some that are not "philosophical" but would have been read by the philosophers I study.

But, again, we bring a conceptual framework to every text we read. Reading at least the most important secondary literature makes us aware of what assumptions we are making, and whether they are warranted.

Let's continue with your example of Hume, since I teach the Treatise almost every year myself. Suppose we read the famous is/ought passage from Book III. What is the structure of the argument? Is it convincing or not? It is certainly important to first make an effort of one's own to answer these questions. But am I so brilliant that no one since Hume has any views on this topic that I could learn from? Personally, my understanding of the is/ought argument has been deeply enriched by the handful of secondary sources I have read. In particular, I think the argument is invalid for reasons that I was led to see by later writers.

Manyul said...

Hi Bryan; I think you misunderstood the Hansen example. You are right about my particular interests; I am in fact very interested in Hansen's work and have read his books; I was merely using him as an example in the following counterfactual way:

I certainly would think better of someone who was working on language and logic in early China if she had considered Hansen's work carefully in her research. But the larger point I was trying to make is that if someone (to whom I referred to using the example "I") who is interested in the Analects, Mencius, and Xunzi had not carefully considered Hansen's work regarding those texts, I might not hold that against them. In that sense, I don't see Hansen as "essential" reading for having an AOS in Chinese philosophy.

Your point in 3 I don't have much disagreement with but I don't see it as supporting your essential reading list in any strong way.

Points 2 and 4 suggest that it would be pragmatic for someone who specializes in Chinese philosophy to understand the major approaches to texts in the field. But that returns to what I think is emerging in these comments as my main point: there is a continuum of competence and engagement with contemporary scholarship and we can judge competence of any particular scholar holistically, without recourse to a litmus test list of secondary sources that they must have read cover to cover in order to be judged minimally competent.

As for your question in 5, I'm happy to answer that and let you sit in judgement about my competence:

Let me first say that I have not yet read any bit of the particular Goldin, Tu, and Wong books on your list. I have read other things by them.

So, I've read at least parts of everything else.

I have read cover to cover the Fingarette, the two Graham books, Hansen, Kupperman, Nivison, and Schwartz.

I think it is possible to take more of a virtue approach to scholarship and assess particular publications or a scholar's body of work to date, or even a young scholar's potential for good work, without having a make-or-break list of secondary sources, even if we include some concessive defeasibility clause. The project just seems at odds with the spirit and, as Aristotle might say, the level of precision, of our academic enterprise.

Thanks for introducing this topic on Eric's blog; I think this is useful.

KenF said...

"This is what is technically known as a "false dichotomy." We don't have to do one or the other. We can do both."

You can do both, sure, but you have to allocate your limited time (and energy).

Let me expand my Hume example. I just started reading Berkeley's Treatise Concerning The Principles of Human Knowledge. I feel like I am getting 5x the understanding *of Hume* from reading that, as reading the secondary sources on Hume's impressions and ideas.

"In particular, I think the argument is invalid for reasons that I was led to see by later writers."

For me, I'm not trying to judge, for instance, whether Hume's theory of impressions and ideas is true or not, or consistent or not. Those are interesting questions, and deserve consideration of course, but what I find far more interesting is trying to understand exactly what Hume was saying and why. What is *his* point? For that, secondary sources actually can be more misleading than helpful, because they are often concerned with pushing their own philosophical agenda. A cynic might even say they are most concerned with promoting the academic philosopher's own reputation. :-)

Anyway, welcome to The Splintered Mind where the peanut gallery always has something to say!

Bryan said...

Dear Manyul,

... if someone ... who is interested in the Analects, Mencius, and Xunzi had not carefully considered Hansen's work regarding those texts, I might not hold that against them.

Many people read Analects 13.3 as central to understanding that text. And the theme of 13.3 is, of course, picked up in a whole essay by Xunzi. Again, I am one of Hansen's harshest critics, but the fact is that Hansen is paradigmatic of an approach that takes 13.3 and the corresponding essay by Xunzi to be central to understanding those philosophies as a whole. And whether I like it or not, many people have read or been influenced by Hansen. So if someone claimed to be seriously interested in the Analects and Xunzi yet was insufficiently familiar with Hansen's approach to at least have an informed stance on it, I would have to "hold that against them" (as a scholar).

Of course, this would only be one factor in my evaluation of such a person's work. And you are certainly right that there is a "continuum of competence and engagement with contemporary scholarship." But I don't see how ignorance can fail to count against someone's competence. And I didn't pick my list out of a hat. They are based on the figures and issues and approaches that come up again and again when I read or talk with people in the field.

I noted on the list cases where one might substitute one work for another, so long as one gets a sense for a general line of approach. I should make explicit that there may be other substitutions. For example, there are other works by Tu that one could read, and if you read at least a few of David Wong's articles you would get a good sense for his approach as it applies narrowly to Chinese philosopohy.

As for my earlier point 3, it was a response to your suggestion that we can distinguish between "comparative philosophy" and "historical reconstruction," and that some works might be essential reading for those interested in one topic but not the other. My reply was that the two topics are interrelated, so if you need to be well read on one topic, you need to be well read on the other.

Bryan said...

Dear Kenf,

For me, I'm not trying to judge, for instance, whether Hume's theory of impressions and ideas is true or not, or consistent or not. ... I find far more interesting is trying to understand exactly what Hume was saying and why.

I don't think one can distinguish the project of understanding "what" and "why" a philosopher is saying from the issue of whether what he is saying is well-argued or not. If what a philosopher says seems inconsistent, isn't that relevant to the issue of whether we have understood him?

Here's an analogy I use with my students. Philosophers present arguments and try to convince us with them. You can't understand those arguments without evaluating whether they are convincing, any more than you can learn French without ever using it to order in a restaurant.

Here's another example of how the secondary literature can help us understand an earlier philosopher. Recall the "Transcendental Deduction." I think it is difficult for any contemporary reader to approach this without assuming that Kant will be trying to present a "deductive" argument as we understand that term. However, Deiter Henrich has an interesting paper in which he shows that, in Kant's era, the term "deduction" had a legal use, and it was this legal use that Kant had in mind.

Could I have discovered the same thing Henrich discovered by reading the original German documents he read? Yes, but then I'd have to learn German and read a lot of random German texts before I stumbled across the right one and recognized its significance. And, as you say, "you have to allocate your limited time (and energy)."

Thanks for the comments and the weclome!

MT said...

A good new edition of a classic text will have an introductory essay that distills the secondary literature for what scholars consider to be the most valuable or illuminating insights. I imagine the amount of scholarship in existence is increasing geometrically over time, while the intellectual capacity of individual scholars cannot be increasing at anything like that rate, and is liable to be asymptoting. Books have to be de-canonized to create an intellectual space for new ones within a discipline, and/or else disciplines have to bifurcate into specialties where some new books within the traditional large domain will be designated as outside the new specialty and belonging to its sibling. Each generation is bound to be partial to the canon on which it was reared and to grouse about what's being left behind as the new generation drops what it can't carry. The fact that things have to be dropped may be one good reason to keep old scholars around, even when studies suggest that academic industry and creativity decline steeply with age. Besides being a living library, they can advocate for ideas that deserve reconsideration before being allowed to disappear from living memory. Still, you might hope for old scholars to consider you "intellectually prepared" once you've passed your orals and defended your dissertation, and in hiring and tenure to evaluate you for your products and performance.

Anonymous said...

"Still, you might hope for old scholars to consider you "intellectually prepared" once you've passed your orals and defended your dissertation, and in hiring and tenure to evaluate you for your products and performance."

While I certainly wish this were true, as a grad student I can confidently tell you that many of my fellow grad students (and perhaps myself) are not intellectually prepared. This is just the point Bryan is bringing out. He asks questions in interviews about the work of a candidate's dissertation advisor and the candidate does not know the work.

Certainly that should count against the candidate, and certainly interviewers have a responsibility to their departments to determine for themselves whether candidates are actually prepared, and not just take it on faith because these candidates have passed their orals. At least when I finally get a job and start interviewing candidates, I'm sure going to do that!

MT said...


While I certainly wish this were true, as a grad student I can confidently tell you that many of my fellow grad students (and perhaps myself) are not intellectually prepared. This is just the point Bryan is bringing out. He asks questions in interviews about the work of a candidate's dissertation advisor and the candidate does not know the work.



Maybe this does signal that something is rotten in Denmark. My point is that the rot may be that the last generation expects too much reading from the latest. The particular unmet expectation--work by somebody on a candidate's dissertation committee, in this case--is bound to vary, because it's ultimately an individual choice (though I'm sure there's cultural cues that guide it). Anyway, failing to have read work by somebody on your dissertation committee is a pretty loosely defined offense, which encompasses trivial and egregious omissions alike. When we have only an offended party's word to judge the gravity of it, we want to consider their known biases. That's why I observed that scholars are loyal to what they were taught. While that is how teaching works, so is the concept of graduation--at which point a candidate has him or herself become fit to self-teach and teach others. It may be that graduate students' plates generally are not full, or not filled well, and that future graduates could meet the particular expectations that current graduates are not meeting in the eyes of hiring committees; but it could be that meeting these expectations would mean arriving less prepared in other ways. This doesn't mean there shouldn't be unsolicited feedback of the kind in the post, just that there's grounds for taking it with salt rather than as the gospel a priori, because it comes from on high.

Manyul said...

Anonymous, you say "This is just the point Bryan is bringing out. He asks questions in interviews about the work of a candidate's dissertation advisor and the candidate does not know the work. Certainly that should count against the candidate..." I think I agree with much of what MT has said. Let me add a bit more.

I would think things vary case to case, depending on how closely the candidate's work and the dissertation advisor's work are connected. Sometimes an adivsor has interests in the candidate's work, but hasn't herself written about it, or has written things tangentially related. Why should the candidate be seen as champion-bearer for the advisor and a failure if he or she cannot articulate the advisor's work for an interview committee? I'm sure in some cases it is something that could be counted against the candidate, but I can't see how it would be wise to adopt that as a rule. There's more than one valuable type of advisory relationship; producing scholars who carry on a program that requires extensive knowledge the advisor's own work is just one type.

No doubt Bryan's complaints are only lodged against candidates who fail along these lines in such relevant cases, and he does not hold the rule to be a hard and fast one.

Bryan said...

Dear mt,

I imagine the amount of scholarship in existence is increasing geometrically over time, while the intellectual capacity of individual scholars cannot be increasing at anything like that rate...

Absolutely!

There is so much secondary literature that it is impossible for anyone to read all of it. But this is precisely why it is important for advisors to teach their students which works are central to contemporary discussions.

Books have to be de-canonized to create an intellectual space for new ones within a discipline...

I agree again.

For example, fifty years ago, Fung Yu-lan's A History of Chinese Philosophy was a central text in the field, and anyone working in that period should have been fairly familiar with it. However, this book was superceded decades ago. So if I asked a recent graduate student something about Fung's views, I would be impressed if they had read Fung, but in no way would hold it against them if they had not.

BUT there is a difference between simple change and genuine improvement. Improvement comes through a process in which we engage dialogically with other people and our precedessors. Through this process, some works become superceded, while other works come to be regarded as central to the dialogue. But that change will only be an improvement if people answer the challenges provided by earlier literature and move on.

The particular unmet expectation--work by somebody on a candidate's dissertation committee, in this case--is bound to vary, because it's ultimately an individual choice (though I'm sure there's cultural cues that guide it).

First, I should clarify something I said that was perhaps misleading. I do NOT think people should read their advisors' work (much less their other committee members' work) regardless of whether it is relevant or important. What I was trying to observe was that we interviewed people who were writing on topic X, and their advisor has a well-known paper on topic X, and the advisee has no idea that there is any such paper. That surely is a problem.

Second, it is not merely a matter of "individual choice" what someone should have read to be literate in the field. You explain why in your parenthetical comment. "There's cultural cues that guide it." Exactly.

Consider the following. I have a colleague who works in political theory and HATES the approach that grows out of Rawls's work. But suppose we interviewed someone whose AOS was "political philosophy," and they remarked that they found contractualist approaches unhelpful. My Rawls-hating colleague asks, "Okay. Could you give us a sense for how you would, in a general way, reply to a Rawlsian?" And now, the candidate says, "Hmm. I'm not sure. What does Rawls say?"

It is NOT an exaggeration to say that I have seen this happen.

Bryan said...

Manyul wrote,

No doubt Bryan's complaints are only lodged against candidates who fail along these lines in such relevant cases, and he does not hold the rule to be a hard and fast one.

Yes. Thanks to you and mt for pointing out the need for me to be clear about this. My points are that (1) it is the advisor's job to make sure his or her students know the current, seminal literature (as judged by the field), and (2) if a student is writing on a particular, specific topic, and the advisor has written on that particular, specific topic, then the student should know that view (even if the student's opinion is, "Yes, my advisor thinks X about Y, but of coures that is completely indefensible because of Z").

Let me give an actual example to illustrate what I mean. Years ago, someone wrote a book, primarily devoted to debunking the views of a previous scholar, "F." The scholar argued that his interpretation was vasly superior to that of "F." The problem was that no one in the field took the views of "F" seriously anyway. What people did take seriously on this topic were the views of "G," which the scholar ignored in his book. Consequently, the first question that popped into any literate reader's head was, "We didn't need you to tell us that F's views are wrong. But we would have liked to know why you think your view is better than G's." This mistake could have been avoided if the scholar or his advisor had been keeping up with the field.

Anonymous said...

Here's an analogy I use with my students. Philosophers present arguments and try to convince us with them. You can't understand those arguments without evaluating whether they are convincing, any more than you can learn French without ever using it to order in a restaurant.

This is just a small point, but surely there's a difference between descriptive and evaluative projects. Not that they aren't mutually influencing, but even you roughly structure your latest book accordingly.

On a larger note, shouldn't a similar point be made for reading secondary sources written in languages other than English? (At least in Chinese for one whose AOS is Chinese Phil) I can't help but notice that you list only a handful (fewer than 5?) of secondary sources in Chinese in your book.

MT said...

...any more than you can learn French without ever using it to order in a restaurant.

French children and legionnaires excepted.

Bryan said...

Dear Anonymous,

This is just a small point, but surely there's a difference between descriptive and evaluative projects.

Personally, I don't think there is a fact-value dichotomy. There certainly is a spectrum, from statements that are largely evaluative to ones that are largely descriptive, but I don't think you can disentangle them.

There's a general hermeneutic point here that I really got from people like Quine, Davidson and Gadamer. To understand a text, you have to assume it "makes sense." To "make sense" it has to agree with us about a lot, and where it disagrees its "errors" (as judged by us) have to be comprehensible. Making these judgments about the text is intrinisically evaluative.

I can't help but notice that you list only a handful (fewer than 5?) of secondary sources in Chinese in your book.

I agree that it is a weakness of my approach that I do not make more use of recent Chinese secondary scholarship.

However, there are reasons that I have not spent more time familiarizing myself with this literature. I have been to both the Mainland and Taiwan. (I've given talks in Chinese in both places.) My sense is that the scholarship in both places has yet to fully recover from the ideological uses made of it during the Cold War.

In addition, my comments in the Introduction to my recent book about the "New Confucian" approach apply to what I have read of many of the major figures in contemporary Chinese discussions.

Paul R. Goldin said...

I can't disagree with too much that Bryan wrote (one can always quibble about whether this publication or that one belongs on the sanctioned list), but I sense that not reading secondary literature may be more of a problem in philosophy departments than East Asian studies departments. In an East Asian studies program, this wouldn't even be an issue. If you haven't mastered the secondary literature, you don't get your degree.

The philosophers among you may disagree with this--and might even take offense--but my suspicion is that philosophers are less likely to devote time and energy to mastering the secondary literature because they're not quite so convinced that it really matters. What do I care what Prof. So-and-so said; Prof. So-and-so is just another hack and I'm brilliant! It's related to the naiver approach I find among some philosophers that you can just hop right into the text and start interpreting what it says without worrying too much about its author, its audience, its reception, its transmission, and so on. And those are things we don't come out of the womb knowing much about. For those kinds of questions, secondary literature is indispensable.

Bryan said...

Dear Paul G.,

I sense that not reading secondary literature may be more of a problem in philosophy departments than East Asian studies departments.

Sadly, I must agree. Far too many philosophers are ahistorical in their approach. Again, I think the Cartesian methodology (sit down and figure it all out by yourself from scratch) continues to dominate, even while philosophers claim to have outgrown Descartes.

manyulim said...

Bryan,

Surely being ahistorical in approach is not equivalent to taking the "Cartesian methodology (sit down and figure it all out by yourself from scratch)." You may be right that being ahistorical is dominant in philosophy, in general, though that would seem odd for history of philosophy (but perhaps appropriate for, say, philosophy of mind).

But no one, even in our just maligned field of philosophy, sits down and starts from scratch at any publishable level--what academic journal or press would seriously consider that? Being familiar with secondary literature and addressing it in the course of one's argument is standard practice in philosophy. Your particular argument seems rather to be with lack of uniformity in what is regarded as essential to address or worth addressing within the secondary literature that philosophers cite. So the contrast between philosophy and Asian studies seems pretty overstated, Paul Goldin's fabulous bibilographic contributions (http://paulrgoldin.com/) notwithstanding.

I'd like to add, however, that as a heuristic--in one's notebook, conversation with a colleague, or on a blog--starting from scratch can be very philosophically valuable sometimes. It can spur creativity of approach or help one to appreciate what intellectual motivation might lie behind a particular approach someone else has already taken. I hope other philosophers out there will chime in if they agree.

Bill Haines said...

I agree, Manyul. Indeed I think it would be badly stunting if not impossible to postpone one’s serious and collaborative thinking on each topic in philosophy (dead or alive) until one had read the main relevant secondary literature. Philosopical thinking-muscles and writing-muscles need exercise, we all need our mistakes corrected at every stage of our education, thinkers need to share their activity with friends, we have to judge the direction of our research, and any one topic pulls in all the others.

Bryan said...

You may be right that being ahistorical is dominant in philosophy, in general, though that would seem odd for history of philosophy...

It is indeed "odd," but it does happen. In fact, it is a common complaint among social scientists and Sinologists that philosophers read texts ahistorically. Sometimes they are right. (Consider Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy, which is a classic example of an ahistorical history.)

Being familiar with secondary literature and addressing it in the course of one's argument is standard practice in philosophy.

The primary point of my original post was that, when I have had conversations with recent graduate students, they typically are not familiar with the most important secondary literature, including even the work of their own advisors. That is a separate issue from whether they will be able to publish in the top journals without such familiarity.

Now, I hope it is true that in "mainstream" philosophy one cannot successfully publish without such familiarity. But my experience has been that that certainly is not the case in our discipline, the study of Chinese philosophy. I do find, again and again, that people are "re-inventing the wheel" in their publications. Often this is because they simply don't know the secondary literature, but other times it is because they have glanced at the secondary literature, but did not think about it carefully enough to respond to it in a nuanced way.

I'd like to add, however, that as a heuristic--in one's notebook, conversation with a colleague, or on a blog--starting from scratch can be very philosophically valuable sometimes.

True, although I would be concerned if someone were doing that in a way that suggested unfamiliarity with relevant work that had been done before.

Bryan said...

Dear Bill,

I never said that anyone should avoid "serious and collaborative thinking" until one had read all the relevant secondary literature. (How could I teach philosophy to undergraduates if I thought that?) What I said was that, before one has obtained a doctorate, one should be familiar with the most important secondary literature on one's own research topic. Are you disagreeing with that?

Bill Haines said...

Hi Bryan,

Actually I was simply responding to Manyul’s specific call. I was not supposing that you disagreed with what I said, nor (separately) that you held the view you disavow in your reply.

I find the questions of quantity and detail that are at issue in your main posting very hard to judge. Your list will be helpful to me, as would other such lists from other people. I shall refrain from challenging your list on specifics. I am inclined to think your list is on the long side, partly because there must also be room for learning ancient and modern Chinese, reading lots of primary texts in the original, some old Chinese secondary work, and learning Western philosophy. A list of absolute essential secondary readings for everyone in the field by degree-time should be significantly smaller than the quantity of secondary reading one should do by degree-time. If a doctorate were supposed to signal a completed education in the AOS, then I would lengthen your list.

As a rationale for your choices you seem to stress the books’ influence, though it’s unclear to me how you weigh that as against other relevant merits. Parallel to the idea of the completeness of an education, which I do not ascribe to you, is the idea or ideal of the wholeness of “the conversation,” which I imagine is important to you. I think it will be hard to make sense of that ideal as the anglophone and Chinese conversations gradually merge.

manyulim said...

I appreciate your responses, Bryan. I do want to follow up just a little bit. I think we at least agree, then, that judicious and thorough perusal of secondary literature directly relevant to one's particular project is is important--and an ideal of our field that people interested in specializing in, should internalize. And I think we agree that any list of "essential" readings is subject to debate here and there, if not wholesale.

The follow-up is more about the "ahistorical" approach to early Chinese philosophy that you brought up in response to Paul Goldin. Is that as bad as ignoring important relevant secondary literature--or bad at all (assuming all other standards of general philosophical inquiry are met)? Historians might be justifiably proud of keeping their interpretations of an ancient text sensitive and close to the historical circumstances of the text and its historical meaning. Are philosophers necessarily bound to that? An ahistorical approach that is less than careful with sticking close to the historical meaning of the text might still provide interesting philosophical results. I assume that isn't ruled out in principle.

In part, I'm trying to reconcile your objection to ahistorical readings of early Chinese texts with the inclusion of Joel Kupperman's book, *Learning from Asian Philosophy*, on your list of essential readings. In Kupperman's own words:

"A normal scholarly book on Asian philosophy would attempt a balanced and comprehensive survey of major traditions, taking each on its own terms and being careful not to impose Western templates on Asian texts. This is not a normal scholarly book....This is not to say there will be willful distortions of Chinese and Indian texts, all of which will be treated with great respect. But they will be used in the way that most teachers of philosophy in Britain and America use, say, Descartes or John Locke: as reminders of problems or lines of thought that we might have forgotten about or ignored, and as suggestive philosophical activity that we can continue, revise, or debate in our own philosophical work." (p. 3)

It seems important, to me, that though Kupperman tries not to engage in "willful distortion" his approach would be considered ahistorical by historians, Paul Goldin included. As Paul noted in his comment above, philosophers are wont to use historical text "without worrying too much about its author, its audience, its reception, its transmission, and so on." Kupperman might care, but he doesn't care this much; nor should he, given the nature of his philosophical project. What matters more--again, this is a matter of degree (I'm not trying to impose a false dichotomy)--in his book is the meaning of the text to "us" not to the audience of pre-Qin China. So, Kupperman need not care about genre-effects on meaning (is it intended for students, opponents, general reading, etc.); nor need he care very much about multiple authorship and textual accretion. He can either take some things for granted (because of the presumptive scholarship that has produced the current received text) or he can hand-wave at issues that just have little bearing (even if by fiat) on what he's after from the text.

I certainly have nothing against that approach though it lies on the historical/ahistorical continuum closer to the ahistorical. What are your thoughts?

Paul R. Goldin said...

Manyul,

Yes, that is a reasoned response, and for the most part I sense that we agree. But I have to say, one thing about the ahistorical philosophers which leaves me cold is that the supposedly hidebound scholastic commentators often had vastly more interesting interpretations than modern philosophers do. The whole situation reminds me of the hatchet-job that Ezra Pound did to the Odes; while most of the English-speaking world, being simply ignorant of Chinese poetry, thought he must be the most brilliant poet since, oh I don't know, let's say Milton, I think any reader truly familiar with the Chinese Odes would place them several ranks above the tendentious little bonbons that Pound offered in their place. (Just an example.)

Speaking of the Odes, I think they nicely illustrate some of the deficiencies of that modern approach. I remember asking a graduate student (heh--someone ELSE'S graduate student) a few years ago what he knew about the Odes. His response was something along the lines of "Not much, because I don't have to." Well, I hope it's not necessary to explain why I don't think you can understand Chinese philosophy if your attitude is that you don't have to know the Odes.

As you say, it's important not to posit a false dichotomy, and I think those philosophers who are so eager to find meaning in the text for US would still do well to know something about what the text meant to THEM. Obviously, that's not the same thing as necessarily adopting the same interpretations as readers of the past (after all, our world is surely different from theirs), but I don't see how a bit of a broader perspective can hurt. It might even help. Sometimes when I hear philosophers strenuously explaining why they don't have to read secondary literature, I feel that they might as well just direct all that energy toward reading a little more secondary literature.

Bill Haines said...

Bryan, I’m in agreement with you and most others here on this: reading pre-Qin texts without much concern for secondary literature and historical background seems to me irrational, unprofessional, and way less fun.

Following the example of your dialogue at the outset, here’s an attempt at an organized comprehensive list of reasons to offer to reluctant graduate students (though perhaps the most effective teaching is one’s own example):

1. Reading good secondary literature makes your writing better because it gives you more understanding of:
a. The ideas in the text;
b. The words, historical figures, allusions, and other essential matters of context; and
c. The authorship and (dis)unity of the text.

2. The only way you can easily write publishable work, and the only way you can write work that will be noticed, is if you get two things you can only get by reading plenty of secondary work:
a. a clear sense of the genre, and
b. a clear sense of your audience.

3. Seeing the problems in others’ work makes your own writing easier, because:
a. pointing out the problems with others’ work can sometimes make a paper,
b. seeing the problems can help you clarify your own views, and
c. seeing others’ mistakes helps your courage.

What else?

Bill Haines said...

There's also Mencius' point at 1B1: doing things with others is more fun than doing them alone.

Paul R. Goldin said...

Not to beat a dead horse, but I was just reading proofs of a forthcoming paper on the word zhong 忠, my point there being that people often badly misunderstand it as "loyalty." (Of course it CAN mean "loyalty," but in the Analects and certain other early texts, it usually means something a lot more complicated and interesting.) And then I wondered--if you're really only interested in an ancient Chinese text for what it can say to us today, how exactly do you get past the routine first step of translating it? I hope we're not all just relying on D.C. Lau. You can't possibly formulate your own understanding of an ancient Chinese text without some knowledge of how the language has changed over the centuries. And that's not always so straightforward; frankly, Chinese readers tend to have as many misconceptions about this as foreigners.

Bryan said...

Dear Manyul,

I don't have a problem with what Joel Kupperman is doing because he is clear about what his project is and what its limitations are. But most people do not do that. They claim to be reading the text on its own terms, and then project some facile 20th or 21st century interpretation on it because they are unaware of what the interpretive options are.

Bryan said...

Dear Bill,

I am inclined to think your list is on the long side, partly because there must also be room for learning ancient and modern Chinese, reading lots of primary texts in the original, some old Chinese secondary work, and learning Western philosophy.

Getting a doctorate should take an absolute minimum of five years, and that is for an extremely well-prepared, talented and motivated student. More normally, I would expect it to take closer to seven or eight years. I don't think my list is too long for that time period, especially since someone should have all of her regular doctoral coursework done within two to three years, so she would have two to six years to complete that reading (even assuming she had read none of it before).

Bryan said...

Dear Manyul,

Here's a follow up on the issue of being ahistorical.

There is a cost that must be paid for taking a genuinely ahistorical approach to Chinese philosophy. The cost is that one cannot (as a matter of logic) disagree or debate with those engaged in a historical project.

For example, the ahistoricist is not entitled to say, "Nivison attributes to Confucius view T, but I disagree, and instead attribute to Confucius view T*."

Why not?

Because Nivison is trying (whether he succeeds or not) to understand Confucius. In contrast, the ahistoricist is merely expressing some view that occurred to him after glancing at the Analects. There is no logical room for disagreement here because "Confucius held T" and "I thought of T* after reading the Analects" are not logically inconsistent.

I don't know of anyone who is willing to pay that price, but perhaps I am mistaken.

manyulim said...

Bryan, if indeed you "don't know of anyone" (I assume you mean anyone worth serious consideration) who is willing to "pay the price" of a seriously ahistorical project, then at whom is your complaint lodged? It is you who said above, "Far too many philosophers are ahistorical in their approach" and "In fact, it is a common complaint among social scientists and Sinologists that philosophers read texts ahistorically. Sometimes they are right. (Consider Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy, which is a classic example of an ahistorical history.)"

So I assume Bertrand Russell makes the list and then there are the "far too many philosophers" who are ahistorical in their approach. Forgive me for being a philosopher, but which is it--are there people of whom you are thinking when you level the charge of irresponsible ahistoricism or aren't there?

I've more or less stood up for the value of Kupperman's work, despite the fact that it meets with some of the criteria, at least suggested by Paul Goldin, for being ahistorical. That's because, as with other things I've been saying in response to this post, I think we should judge a project on its own merits, not based on a priori principles of good scholarship. Kupperman pays attention to the historical in some respects and, as you note, is upfront and clear about the ahistorical aspects. But as I think we agree, he does that for the sake of some interesting and rich philosophical results.

There are costs, probably, to every approach; but there may be benefits too. Why don't we just judge a book by the bottom line it produces, to stay with the accounting analogy?

Bill Haines said...

Bryan, why do you think a doctorate should normally take seven or eight years? I assume you don’t think a doctorate signals a completed education. I am under the impressions that the tendency in recent decades for people to take so long is widely regarded as a kind of disaster.

Bill Haines said...

Here’s a case for keeping grad school short. One can learn faster when one’s peers are professors than when they are graduate students: especially when those professors are people who, having joined the department young rather than old, are not accustomed to maintaining a sheen of public infallibility. Before the degree, one’s ultimate location and employability are uncertain. That’s an obstacle to partnership, reproduction, community membership, and whatever alternative career one might have to fall back on. In grad school, commonly, for all those years, one’s life plan is hostage to the whim of one or two advisers who, like all people with absolute power, are not unlikely to be inattentive to their duties. Graduate school tends to be a marginal position of poverty and uncertainty and not-quite-adulthood, bad for the soul and bad training for standing up to university administrations.

Alexus McLeod said...

Bill-
Amen! to everything you just said about keeping grad school short--poverty and uncertainty indeed! [Especially bad when one already has a family to look after]. If I learned I would have take, say, three years more, I think that at that moment I would spontaneously combust.

Bryan said...

Dear Manyul,

I did not say that no one engaged in ahistorical projects. I said that IF one engages in an ahistorical project, one has no right to disagree with those who are engaged in a historical project, because the two kinds of work have different goals. Then I said I knew of no one willing to pay THAT price. In other words, the "price" is withholding disagreement with others.

Suppose someone said something equivalent to this: "Here is something I came up with on my own, inspired by Confucius. It may not be anything like what Confucius said, and I take no stand on what Confucius did say or mean, and I certainly do not challenge the views of those who have tried to determine the views of Confucius himself."

I would be surprised by this, but I would have to respect the consistency of their project.

Now, Kupperman does not cite a lot of historical or philological work, but what he says does not (in general) contradict the findsings of history or philology. And I have had many productive conversations with Joel, so I know that he does not attempt to insulate himself from historical criticism.

By the way, I'm really glad that you appreciate Kupperman's work so much. I remember a certain person years ago who dismissed one of Joel's papers, and I spoke up on Joel's behalf.

Bryan said...

Dear Bill,

My own experience has been the opposite of what you suggest. As soon as most people gets a doctorate, they are convinced that they are infallible, and have no interest in learning any new approaches not already taught to them in graduate school. That's why it's important to teach them early.

I also do not think it is true that the length of graduate education is "widely regarded as a kind of disaster." I think there is a crisis in graduate education, but the problem is that we are churning out graduate students at a much higher rate than the market can absorb. The reason for this is that it is cheaper to pay graduate students to teach than professors, and many professors like to have grad students around to do their grading.

In philosophy in particular, many students have literally no chance of getting any job with the degree they are earning. But this problem would not be addressed by changing the amount of time you spend in grad school.

Bill Haines said...

Hi Bryan,

I agree that there are too many degrees granted. I don’t share your experience of young faculty, but I think I haven't met any fresh PhDs in the field of pre-Qin philosophy. I defer to your report on what isn't "widely regarded as a disaster." There are still all the other reasons though. Granted, keeping graduate school brief wouldn't be an easy thing.

manyulim said...

Thanks for the clarification, Bryan. Based on your clarification, however, I'm not sure why ahistorical projects are the sort of thing that historical purists *could* care about, much less should care about. The lack of something in common to argue about works both ways: just as the ahistorical project can't argue against the historical one, the historical project can't really engage the former, for lack of enough points of agreement upon which the disagreements could be based.

That having been said, I think the idea that ahistorical projects are some kind of "misfortune" is a non-sequitur. The price to be paid, to which you refer, is not being able to disagree with *historians* and *their* readings of the text. You might still find other philosophers who disagree with whatever ideas or arguments you've been inspired to have by the text. They would of course have to be developed beyond "Here's an idea that occurred to me while reading the Zhuangzi!" but that should go without saying.

Maybe what you, and possibly Paul Goldin, find unfortunate is some kind of hybrid approach that merely pretends to be historical until challenged by historians, or just does its history in shoddy manner but still gains widespread acceptance among the unwashed philosophers. That seems like a legitimate gripe against disingenuous or bad execution of historical method, but not against ahistorical method in philosophy, even if it invokes texts from some time ago.

"By the way, I'm really glad that you appreciate Kupperman's work so much. I remember a certain person years ago who dismissed one of Joel's papers, and I spoke up on Joel's behalf."

Perhaps you speak of me; my memories of conversations aren't nearly as well-kept. (Just ask my wife.) Which article was that? I may have changed my mind about it in the interim. Kupperman's work has its value, though I certainly haven't find all of it interesting. Nor, still, do I find it to be essential reading, particularly for someone who is more interested in historical analysis than in "learning" from Confucius (or Laozi or "the Buddha" or any of the other personae Kupperman introduces into conversation with Nietzsche, Sartre, et. al. in his book). But I'm sure you agree that to deny that something is essential reading for specialization in a field does not constitute a criticism of it except under a highly implausible standard for something's being worth reading. Cheers.

Alexus McLeod said...

One question occurs to me here:
I agree with the inclusion of most of the works in Bryan's list as essential reading for specialists in Chinese philosophy. However, there's certainly also important secondary literature in Chinese, which I'm not nearly as familiar with as I am with the English literature. Should Chinese works (and probably some Japanese ones too, especially if you're interested, as I am, in Han dynasty philosophy) be necessary for specialists in the field to have knowledge of? If so, which ones make the list? Any suggestions?

Anonymous said...

I'm also inclined to think of promoting such a list as a canon building project that can't help but be political (in the broad sense) in nature, whether intentionally or not.
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