Monday, August 18, 2014

Why Don't We* Know Our Chinese Philosophy?

(* "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:

  • More on Philosophy's "White Man" Problem
  • The Embodied Mind: An Interview with Philosopher Evan Thompson

    Ralph Wedgwood said...

    Here is one reason why there is so deplorably little work on Chinese philosophy in Western philosophy departments.

    To do good work on ancient Greek philosophy, one has to be able to read Greek, and to know a fair amount about the culture and history of the ancient Mediterranean world. Similarly, to do good work on Zhuangzi et al., one would have to have studied both (a) philosophy, and (b) Chinese language, culture, and history. But whereas quite a lot of philosophers have a Classis background, there are vanishingly few philosopher who have a background in Chinese Studies.

    Institutionally, the reason for this seems to be that Philosophy departments have historically had fewer links with Chinese Studies departments than with Classics departments. Of course, we Western philosophers should have tried to foster such links. (Instead, we seem mostly just to have scared scholars of Chinese philosophy away, by being aggressive and impatient analytic philosophers with them....)

    However, I suspect that this problem will solve itself over the course of the 21st century. Analytic philosophy looks set to grow in China: and so in all likelihood, the scholars who will bring ancient Chinese philosophy into conversation with analytic philosophy will themselves be Chinese. As Chinese analytic philosophers become more distinguished and better known in the West, they will also awaken interest in ancient Chinese philosophy as well.

    Mason Webster said...

    To add to Ralph's comment: I've learned Chinese the past 12 years and feel proud to say that I have a reading ability similar to the average Chinese middle school student. Reading is still laborious for me and I much prefer reading in my native English.

    That being said, ancient written Chinese sometimes known as 文言文 (wenyanwen) is excruciatingly difficult to read, even for the Chinese themselves. The syntax, grammar, and way the characters are used in words bear almost no semblance to the modern language. I took a course in classical Chinese in college as part of my minor and we covered Lao Zi and Kong Zi and others mentioned here. Without explanation from the professor, the passages seemed like gibberish, even for a "fluent" speaker.

    This adds to the difficulty in understanding the writings of these ancient Chinese philosophers. It is rare to meet someone in modern China that has done more than a cursory reading of these texts.

    Eric Schwitzgebel said...

    Thanks for the comments, folks! Ralph: I'm inclined to share your optimism, but only in the very long view. In the short term, it does not seem like things have changed much. There are very few Leiter-ranked PhD programs that have a specialist in classical Chinese philosophy, and a decade or so ago some of the best-ranked programs lost their specialists without replacing them (Stanford, Berkeley, Michigan).

    Eric Schwitzgebel said...

    Mason: I agree that the language is a major obstacle in the training of specialists. And yet it is the kind of thing that is regularly done by people in Religious Studies and Comparative Literature who specialize in classical Chinese culture!

    Manyul Im said...

    Language is a nontrivial hurdle for specialists, but there are very good translations in English of most of the major texts that philosopher-specialists have written about. And, for the latter reason, there are good critical and philosophical discussions of those texts in the secondary literature that a non-specialist philosopher can follow with more or less ease, depending on the piece.

    Anonymous said...

    A wonderful article! It should be reprinted every year. The situation is really a bit daft. Ignorance may be able to justify ignorance, but a failure to make any progress for centuries cannot be justified in the same way.

    chinaphil said...

    I think it is reasonable to offer one defence of the western establishment here. There is little work done on Chinese philosophy for the same reason that there is little work done on Aztec philosophy (apparently, it's just as interesting: - who knew?): Chinese philosophy is not a living tradition.

    Obviously that's a very controversial statement, but it could be more acceptable in relative terms: there is vastly less interesting work done in the Chinese tradition than in the Greek and Christian traditions (or traditions which can be recognisably traced back to the Greek and Christian writers). For political reasons, the Chinese philosophical academy got wiped out in the 20th century (and it wasn't a very continuous tradition before then, cf. the Qing rediscovery of Mozi). To the extent that that's true, we can ask: is it the responsibility of the western philosophical establishment to revive "Chinese philosophy"? Should we be any more interested in Chinese philosophy than in Manichaean philosophy?

    I guess I'm arguing a variant of the problem you identify: Because we haven't been continuously engaged with their work, they have little impact on philosophy; because they have little impact on philosophy, we do not have many open avenues for engagement with their work.

    chinaphil said...

    Or to put the same point a different way: If you identify Chinese philosophy as being Confucius and Laozi, then you are really making it a geographically distinct branch of ancient philosophy. And ancient philosophy is always going to be a niche subject.

    Someone has to go and do the work of building a tradition that speaks to modernity on the basis of China's ancient texts. The Greeks invented logic; there are now something like 20 different types of logic, all with their own pages on the SEP. Until someone has done that for Confucius (e.g. written whole literatures on different possible permutations of the five constant relationships), there's no reason to think that we should be able to use Confucian concepts profitably in modern philosophy.

    Manyul Im said...

    Briefly responding to Chinaphil: The works of Plato and Aristotle form a "branch" of ancient philosophy; nonetheless they are required of Western philosophical training and not narrowly "niche" areas. I take your tacit point then to be not that the works of Confucius and Mencius, say, are justifiably ignored because they are ancient and niche, but that they are not necessary to the full background training required for those who pursue Western philosophical inquiry as a student or professional. One way to understand Eric's point is that for someone who pursues philosophical inquiry without a regional qualifier added, it is worth the effort to educate oneself or to be educated by another about some of the foundational or influential work from parts other than the West.

    As to whether there is a living tradition of Chinese philosophy, I think there are quite a few contemporary philosophers who work in the continuation of Confucian or Daoist thought who would not only argue that there have be a variety of continuous work in the tradition but who are themselves proof that it is not dead.

    So I think I've understood you; I'm not sure your premises are true.

    Eric Schwitzgebel said...

    chinaphil: Interesting thoughts! I think there is some truth in them, though perhaps my own perspective is closer to Manyul's. There is a historical strand from 21st century logic back to ancient Greek logic that is much more robust than the strand back to ancient Chinese logic (and maybe more robust than the strand back to ancient Indian logic, but I'm not as sure about that from a global perspective). But the strand in the West (and in philosophers influenced by Western traditions) was sometimes thin or gappy, and geographically shifting, in a way not radically different in kind from the strands going back in the East (and in philosophers influenced by Eastern traditions). And in topics other than logic, the story might play out very differently -- partly depending on with how much philosophical respect one regards the Confucian, Daoist, Buddhist, Hindu, etc., traditions.

    I agree that part of the task in convincing contemporary Anglophone philosophers to take ancient Chinese philosophy seriously involves showing how philosophical work on contemporary problems can be informed by those ancient traditions. This requires the cooperation, I think, of two different types of scholars: true specialists in the tradition who help translate and interpret and teach the rising generations of scholars, and non-specialists with competence in or interest in the tradition, influenced by the tradition in their thinking about contemporary issues.

    Mike Maxwell said...

    Excellent article.

    I see many parallels between ancient Chinese philosophy and the roots of the Western philoophical tradition, especially Pythagoreanism and certain other of the pre-Socratics. The two traditions are not so far apart, and indeed, there was a time during the heyday of German idealism, that Eastern philosophy dovetailed much more closely with Western academic philosophy.

    I suspect that the rift you've so appropriately pointed out, is particularly the result of the rise of analytic philosophy, which has little (though not nothing) in common with Confucianism and especially with Taoism. It's my hope that Chinese philosophy will makes its way in to the academic world of the West by way of a popular resurgence, which has been going on for some time now in the West.

    Michel Clasquin-Johnson said...

    A few semi-random ideas:

    As Eric points out, Chinese Philosophy is more often presented in Religious Studies Departments than in Philosophy Departments. In fact (speaking as a RS professor) RS finds itself the "caretaker" of not just Chinese but also Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic etc philosophies. My most recent PhD student wrote on Nagarjuna. Anyone care to present an argument why Nagarjuna is not a philosopher?

    On the other hand, the journal Philosophy East & West has been coming out since 1951! If I eat right and exercise I might live to see its centenary. It's produced at the University of Hawaii which, last time I checked, was part of the USA. The Journal of Chinese Philosophy is up to Volume 40. Asian Philosophy is newer: just up to Volume 24. The people publishing in all these journals must be working somewhere, right?

    So if "we" (US based philosophy professors) are ignorant of Chinese philosophy it is not because there is not a flourishing discourse on Chinese and other philosophies going on out there. It is because it is being done by people who can't be bothered to call themselves "philosophers". They are working in departments of Religious Studies, Asian Languages, even Political Science.

    There's a popular course on Chinese Philosophy at Harvard. Is it based in the Philosophy Department? No, Prof Michael Puett is in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations. ( )

    So come on in, US based philosophy professors. The water's fine!

    Titas Burinskas. said...

    Let's not forget that the medium that passed through the ancient Greek and Latin texts was that of a medieval one- scholastics. Many people seem to be unaware that the way we write articles and do commentaries on works- the academic style as a whole- came from medieval ages.
    Perhaps that's why It's so hard for western culture to accept eastern philosophy. It's because it lacks the same commentary tradition the west had in medieval ages, here's why:
    No commentary medium on which one would base modern discourse (because we had it, let's not forget).
    The second reason being the general unattractiveness of the approach we used explicitly on western philosophies.

    I don't imply that the scholastic manner by which we discuss the matter even right here in the comments section is bad for engaging the subject. All I'm saying is that medieval ages gave us a unique commentary on western philosophies, forming some sort of continuum- let's say, a bridge- right to the modern era. We have a much larger basis to approach the West classics rather than the East just because of the medieval ages. Therefore the East seems to be less attractive for the academics in general, because it didn't undergo the same Classical era- Medieval era- Modern Era cycle. To approach East without the medium that carried it to the present day is the same as to apply the modern philosophical classifications to greeks. Scholastics did a fine job classifying and categorizing Classic texts, the Chinese, however, did not get such a luxury, so the question here is- how do we approach it?

    Eric Schwitzgebel said...

    Here's an interesting anonymous comment, emailed from a philosophy student in China, who has given me permission to post it here.

    As a Chinese philosophy major, I have been puzzled and suffered by the fact that what is called Chinese philosophy in China, as a field and by its present practice, is more history of ideas than philosophical work on the Chinese intellectual tradition. For instance, a typical way dealing with Mencius' "good-human-nature theory"(性善论) is, to gather the usage of concept nature(性) or to explore its history of interpretation. In so doing the focus is more on the historical significance than the philosophical. In fact, why bother its philosophical significance when in this communist regime all philosophical truths have been discovered by Karl Marx? Marxist ideological influence aside, a lot researchers are calling for a pure Chinese philosophy in its own terms and uncontaminated by western theorization (including Marxism). But from paying no attention to philosophy to avoid being philosophical, the result remains the same.

    Yet the more genuine reason that keeps Chinese philosophy from being philosophical, and hence contributes to “Why Don't We Know” problem, lies in the fact that we Chinese don’t know much philosophy in its Western sense either. Though much progress has been made in the introduction of the Western intellectual tradition in general and philosophy in specific, the assimilation of them into a constructive dialogue has a long way to go. For this reason, though one may be familiar with the arguments of Mencius, and some fragmentary knowledge of philosophy, she don’t know how to talk about these “moral talk” in a philosophically relevant way. To engage Chinese intellectual resource in philosophical discussion requires training in both “Chinese” side and the philosophical side, but the latter is far more decisive.

    JohnnyZenith said...

    I find Chinese Philosophy fascinating and I do wonder why Sun Wu isn't more well known.

    Unknown said...

    Philosophy (or whatever you name it) and also Science is cultural.
    At present The Hellenic Greek based western cultural reality is very dominant, but also in deep crisis.

    The chinese for instance some 2000 ages ago via Mencius got acquainted with mind body monism (all is about behavior)

    After Alexander the Great China and Western World didn't communicate any more.
    There are no Chinese 'philosphers' because they are called 'Sjengren'.
    A notion that is not even accepted in Western Science.

    Have a look at