(* "we" U.S.-based philosophy professors)
In 2001, I published a piece in the American Philosophical Association's Newsletter on the Status of Asian & Asian-American Philosophers & Philosophies. In light of my recent reflections about the visibility of non-Western philosophy and philosophers, and especially this remarkable piece from an Asian-American who left philosophy, I thought I'd reproduce a revised version of the essay here. I've appended two new substantive notes at the end.
Why Don't We Know Our Chinese Philosophy?
APA Newsletter on the Status of Asian & Asian-American Philosophers & Philosophies, 1 (2001), 26-27; revised 2014.
Philosophers in the United States have all heard of Confucius (Kongzi) and Laozi (Lao Tzu). Some have also heard of their approximate contemporaries in classical China: Mencius (Mengzi), Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu), Mozi (Mo Tzu), Xunzi (Hsün Tzu), and Han Feizi (Han Fei Tzu). So why haven't most of us read any of their works?
Are they not really philosophers? Even applying the narrowest criteria for what counts as a "philosopher", it would be strange to deny that Mozi and Xunzi are philosophers. Both produced long, discursive works on ethics and political philosophy; both support their views with reasoned arguments; both offer counter-arguments to opponents' views. Han Feizi is similar in structure, though more narrowly focused, like Machiavelli, on advice for achieving political power. Mencius and Zhuangzi did not write in standard philosophical essay format, but both offer persuasive arguments for positions in ethics, political philosophy, philosophy of mind, and epistemology. Unconventional format should no more disqualify Mencius and Zhuangzi than it does Nietzsche and Wittgenstein. Confucius and Laozi are more fragmentary and less argumentative; but many ancient Greek philosophers are even more fragmentary than Confucius and Laozi.
Nor do these philosophers rely on any narrowly religious dogma; rather, they start from considerations that are for the most part intuitive and widely acceptable even in the contemporary United States. Despite the fact that their works are more often taught in Religious Studies than in Philosophy departments, their religious commitments are less invasive and dogmatic than the religious commitments of many European philosophers. Mengzi's and Xunzi's arguments are far more secular than Descartes's and Berkeley's.
Perhaps, then, these classical Chinese philosophers are insufficiently important to warrant broader attention in the United States? If "important" means good, it's not clear that this is so. Although to some extent such judgments are a matter of taste, in my estimation Mengzi and Xunzi's views of moral psychology are as good as anything we have going now [note 1], and their debate about whether human nature is good or bad is considerably more sophisticated than the corresponding debate between Hobbes and Rousseau. Zhuangzi's skeptical and relativist arguments are as lively and challenging as Descartes' first two Meditations, Sextus Empiricus, or Peter Unger, and his positive vision is interestingly distinct from that of any major philosopher in the West.
If we assess importance by historical influence, different potential criteria come into competition. Considered globally, Confucius, Laozi, and to a lesser extent the other major classical Chinese philosophers have been enormously influential, probably more influential in Eastern Asia than Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle have been in Europe and the Americas. Even in the United States among the general population Confucius and Laozi are better known and more broadly discussed than any but a handful of European philosophers.
Still, perhaps the proper measure of historical importance for us philosophy professors in the U.S. in deciding what to teach and read is the influence that a particular philosopher has had on contemporary philosophy in the United States. Here, finally, we might have a justification for our ignorance of classical Chinese philosophy.
But it is then worth inquiring why classical Chinese philosophers are not especially influential in contemporary U.S. philosophy. One possibility is historical accident: Because the dominant culture in the United States traces back to Europe, the classical Chinese philosophers were not taught to, and thus not read by, the succeeding generations. Ignorance thus apparently justifies ignorance: Because we don't know their work, they have little impact on our philosophy; because they have little impact on our philosophy, we are justified in remaining ignorant about their work.
That seems like a regrettable state of affairs, unless we already know that these philosophers wouldn't have much positive influence on our thinking even if we did read them. But if they are as good as I know them to be, it's hard to see why reading them wouldn't have a positive influence on us -- not unless our education has so distorted us that we are unprepared to learn what they have to teach. [note 2]
Further thoughts, 2014:
Note 1: When I wrote this in 2001, empirical moral psychology was still dominated by intellectualistic models that left little room for emotion and spontaneous reaction, and seemed really to be measures of how good a moral philosopher one was (esp. Lawrence Kohlberg's stage theory). Philosophical moral psychology was not, in my view, a whole lot better. The intervening years have seen a huge surge of interest in morality as a phenomenon in which emotional and intellectual processes, spontaneous reactions, habit, and more thoughtful reflection, all come together in complicated ways. We are finally starting to catch up with Mengzi and Xunzi! (In this one respect at least.) If you had been reading ancient Chinese philosophy in the 1990s, you might have been surprised that the field hadn't moved past Kohlberg even sooner. My own reaction was to criticize intellectualist models of moral psychology by close empirical examination of the moral behavior of ethics professors -- a project that grew directly out of my work on Mengzi and Xunzi.
One huge advantage of reading outside of the dominant tradition, in my view, is that it helps you see past the narrow trends and presuppositions of your current cultural situation -- and the farther out of the mainstream you go, the more so.
Note 2: In this piece I didn't comment on the possibility of implicit bias (or even explicit bias) against Asians in U.S. philosophy departments, but I have become increasingly convinced that it plays an important role.
Readers might also be interested in these items, brought to my attention by Daily Nous: