Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Chinese Philosophy Discussion Arcs

Different classical Chinese philosophers have drawn different amounts of discussion in the Anglophone world over the past seventy years.  I want to look at this phenomenon quantitatively and then suggest a general conjecture about the history of philosophy.

The six target philosophers include two who are well-known in the Western world outside scholarly circles, Confucius and Laozi (aka Lao Tzu), and four who are much less well known, Mencius, Zhuangzi, Xunzi, and Mozi (aka Mengzi, Chuang Tzu, Hsün Tzu, and Mo Tzu).  Below is a graph of their "discussion arcs" -- that is, the rates, times 1000, at which their names appear in keyword (including abstract and title) searches in Philosopher's Index, divided by a representative universe of articles. Click the image for a clearer view.

(For more details on discussion arcs, see here and here. My search terms also included many less common early spellings such as Mocius and Chuangtze.)

One result that jumps out is (as one might expect) the relative prominence of Confucius. Also striking, though, on closer inspection, is another phenomenon: The relative decline of Confucius and Laozi compared to the other four philosophers. To better display this trend, here's a comparison of the proportion of articles mentioning Confucius or Laozi to the proportion mentioning any of the other four. (Again, click for clarity.)
I don't interpret as meaningful the apparently very tight match of the lines at the end of the graph -- but the approximate match does seem meaningful. In the 1940s-1970s, Confucius and Laozi combined received about twice as much discussion as the other four philosophers combined. Starting in the 1980s or 1990s, that situation changed.

My general conjecture is this: As a subfield in the history of philosophy matures (as I believe the history of Chinese philosophy has done in the past couple decades), proportionately less expository attention is devoted to the most famous headline figures and proportionately more attention is devoted to less well known figures. This is a kind of "winnowing of the greats" in reverse.

If that conjecture is correct, we ought to see the same effect in other subareas of the history of philosophy.


Kurt M Boughan said...

I'd like to see a similar study done for later medieval scholastics (of the Latin West, 1100-1500). References canvassed should include studies by intellectual historians as well as philosophers.

I'd expect downward lines for pre-1277 figures (e.g. Abelard, Bonaventure), and upward lines for post-1277 ones (e.g. Scotus, Auriol, Gregory of Rimini, Buridan). Robert Grosseteste (d. 1253) and Roger Bacon (d. 1292) might have humped lines peaking ca. 1980.

Aquinas of course I'd expect to dominate the statistics with little variation over time, unless you excluded all work by scholars in RC religious orders and others of similar religious agenda. But I'd love to be surprised about that.

Kurt M Boughan said...

Oh, and why not do one for major thinkers in Islam, too -- with buzz index curves for Ibn Sina, al-Kindi, Ibn Rushd, al-Farabi?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the suggestion, Kurt! That would be a nice comparison point. Any ideas for a good data source on intellectual historians? I don't know the databases very well. Historical Abstracts seems to provide only very thin results. I don't want to use Google NGram or source like that in which popular references swamp scholarly articles, since as I've seen in the past, the arcs from NGram look very different than from PhilIndex.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Also, getting the alternative spellings correct, especially for hits from the older sources, might be a bit of a challenge.

In doing this sort of thing, it really helps to know the field, I think.

Mandar Karanjkar said...

Very interesting. It might also mean that people change their interests periodically. Or, the truth when told in same way becomes boring. Hence, people jump over to newer preachers, philosophers.

Marshall said...

I remember the '60's. Lao Tzu, as he was then known, was the big noise, but I see he didn't make much on your chart. Granted we philosophized more than we published l... did you search the Barb, the Oracle, the Voice? At least Rolling Stone?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Sadly, I don't think Rolling Stone is in PhilIndex! Try Lao Tzu in Google's NGram for more popular sources. Even there, the peak seems to be around 1980, not the 1960s. You were ahead of your time!

Matthew Duncombe said...

There are other factors to consider in the relative attention paid to particular figures. In my field, Ancient Greek Philosophy, very often a landmark piece of scholarship (e.g. a good edition of fragments, or a translation into a vernacular language a previously untranslated work) on a particular period or author will prompt a spike, or a continued upward trend, in work on that period or author. Long and Sedley's collection of fragments of the Hellenistic philosophers, for example, pushed work in that area from obscurity into the mainstream.

Bryan said...

As always, you have given us something interesting to think about!

I have a technical question and then an interpretive suggestion.

1. Do we know whether these changes are statistically significant? For example, the Mozi line seems to suggest an early strong interest, followed by a decline, and then more recently a spike in interest. But perhaps this is just normal statistical variance?

2. Assuming that we ARE looking at something statistically significant, here is my offhand guess about what is going on. In the 40s through 60s, we see more dilettantes (sorry, can't think of a nicer word) working on Chinese thought, and they assume that Confucius and Laozi are "where the action is" philosophically. They also tend to accept the traditional story that Zhuangzi is just explicating Laozi, Mengzi is just explicating Kongzi, and Xunzi is to be ignored because he's a heretic. Then, as more philosophically informed scholars start working on the material, they realize that -- at least if one is using a particular sort of methodology which is "analytic" in a broad sense -- Zhuangzi, Mengzi, and Xunzi are a more fecund source for research and discussion. (The qualification there is important.) I'm not sure why interest in Mozi stays low for so long, since he's philosophically interesting. (Graham did great work on the Mohists in the 1970s, but perhaps that didn't register in the philosophy community.)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Matthew: Yes, that seems plausible!

@ Brian: The recent bump in Mo relative to Confucius+Laozi is marginally significant (p = .03 but post hoc). The overall trend for Confucius+Laozi vs the other four is highly significant (p < .0001).

Part of me is inclined to agree with your hypothesis but I am humbled by the fact that that doesn't seem to be the judgment of history. Either way would be broadly consistent with the "reverse winnowing" hypothesis, but there's a question how much the explanation would generalize between subareas in the history of philosophy. Sometimes the most famous figures might be founding visionaries thin on analytic-style argumentation; in other cases the most famous figures might better suit analytic tastes. On your hypothesis, the reverse-winnowing effect would be stronger in the former case than the latter.

If the study of classical Chinese philosophy continues to mature, it might be interesting to see what happens to the third-tier figures like Han Feizi, the Yangists, and the later Mohists. A general reverse winnowing hypothesis would predict they might all rise about equally. A discovering-analytically-fecund-philosophers hypothesis might predict more action for the more fecund ones -- whichever they are!

Carl said...

I wonder whether Bryan's suggestion would be born out better if you could separate the references by type of publication, dividing journals (for example) into three categories: things like Philosophy East and West and Journal of Chinese Philosophy in one group; more traditional but high-quality Anglo-American journals like Mind or APQ in another; and everything else in a grab-bag third.

Bryan said...

Carl's suggestion is constructive and worth trying. However, my strong sense is that, until very recently, "traditional, high-quality journals like Mind or APQ" have simply refused to publish work on Chinese thought.

Another factor that makes the data hard to interpret is related to this. Until recently, the only philosophy journals regularly publishing on Chinese thought were the Journal of Chinese Philosophy and Philosophy East and West. Both journals are published at the University of Hawaii, and the latter journal is not limited to Chinese thought. There were some other venues for publication, but they would not show up in a search of philosophy journals (e.g., Monumenta Serica, Journal of Asian Studies et al.). More recently, journals like Dao and Asian Philosophy have started to publish. They have different editorial boards, which may also reflect what is getting published.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Carl & Brian: That's an interesting idea. One thought I've had is to create a list of "elite, mainstream journals" vs. all others and then look at ratios of discussion in the two different types of venue. One might expect that different authors would show different representations and trajectories in the two pools, e.g., Nietzsche vs. Kripke. I'll probably play around with that a bit soon. Working up some journal-type division like that might make sense for the ancient Chinese too.

I had been concerned that the addition of Dao and Asian Philosophy to JCP and PEW would create a journal-specific effect that seems plainly artifactual, but I didn't end up seeing really striking evidence of that, partly because the PhilIndex journal base was growing swiftly in other areas too around the same time, and partly because there are a number of lesser-known Asian-friendly sources contributing to the pool (e.g., Philosophical Review [Taiwan] and Chinese Studies in Philosophy). It could be interesting to tease this apart more carefully, though.

Anonymous said...

Chinese philosophy is not worth at all. Europe gave more philosophers and more clear thoughts than Asia.