Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

Changes at Warp, Weft, and Way

Manyul and I would like to announce a few changes here at the blog. First, Chris Fraser has decided to change his status from one of the blog’s administrators to simply a contributor; we thank Chris for his help and advice over the years, especially with our move to the commercial server that has enabled the blog to be generally accessible in China.

Second, we seek nominations, including self-nominations, for a small number of Content Acquisition Editors, who will be responsible for seeking out contributions and contributors to the blog’s content, principally for our Feature Post category. The ideal Editor would be someone who is knowledgeable about the work of scholars in Chinese and/or Comparative philosophy (both professionally affiliated and independent) in his or her general geographic area or specialized area of study.  We request of all willing nominees a current CV and a brief list of ideas for potential content. Content Acquisiion Editors–who also will be able to post their own contributions, of course–will be listed on the blog’s homepage. All nominations should be sent via email to Manyul and me (mim@fairfield.edu, sangle@wesleyan.edu).

Third, we are happy to announce that we have concluded an arrangement with Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy whereby one article each issue will: (1) be made available for free on-line access, and (2) have a dedicated period of discussion on the blog, led off by a Featured Post that offers a precis of the article and a few critical comments. The article’s author will follow the discussion and offer her or his answers and observations. We will have news about the first article in this WW&W - Dao collaboration soon.

Best wishes for the Holidays and New Year,

Steve & Manyul

Hannah Pang detail

December 12th, 2013 Posted by | Blog details | 27 comments

27 Responses to Changes at Warp, Weft, and Way

  1. Hwa Yeong Wang says:

    Dear Steve & Manyul,

    Thank you so much for your continuing effort with this blog. I am truly enjoying all the discussion and information on this blog.

    Among changes, I am particulary excited to hear about Dao collaboration. Looking forward to hearing more.

    Thanks!

  2. Maybe you could also change your tag line: It should be “Chinese Thought and Comparative Studies”. There is no such thing as ‘Chinese Philosophy’ – that’s imperialist, Euro-centrist, and quite out of date. Just saying. ;-D

    • Manyul Im says:

      Hello Thorsten! I’m fascinated by this sort of comment each time you make it — and of course this isn’t the first time on our blog. I do have a few questions:

      Do you believe there is such a thing as “world philosophy”? I only ask because you seem affiliated with “The World Ethics Institute Beijing.” (link to east-west-dichotomy.com). If there is world ethics, it seems like world philosophy might be on a par with something like that. Perhaps I’m wrong. But world philosophy seems to contain even more imperialistic a use of the term ‘philosophy’ than when modified by ‘Chinese’ — it seemingly aims for world domination, not just domination of China.

      But perhaps there are significant differences of imperial intent among the terms ‘World Ethics,’ ‘Chinese Ethics,’ ‘World Philosophy,’ and ‘Chinese Philosophy.’ I thank you in advance for clarifying.

      -Manyul

  3. Kai Marchal says:

    Unless you explain yourself in more detail, your remark will be perceived rightly as ideological – who should take this attack seriously?! “Nicht wo euer Auge aufhört zu erkennen, sondern schon dort, wo eure Redlichkeit aufhört, da sieht das Auge nichts mehr.” (Nietzsche)

  4. Bill Haines says:

    Paul and Thorsten, I’m interested in hearing what features of philosophy are absent from Chinese thought.

    Paul, I take it you’re saying you think that there’s no such thing as Chinese philosophy, – - are you also saying you the view that there is Chinese philosophy is imperialist? Or eurocentric? Or out of date (at least in the minimal sense that the case against it is well enough known or established that holding the view is culpable beyond being an error)?

    • Paul R. Goldin says:

      It’s a debate that can easily turn into a slogfest, and I’m not going to make his argument for him, but the way I’d put it is that “philosophy” is not a natural kind like, say, “electron.” When you call something “philosophy,” inevitably you’re applying Eurocentric protocols. And those don’t work very well when you’re talking about China.

      Why doesn’t anyone ever talk about Seneca’s conception of 仁? Or whether Christ was a Daoist? How about a dissertation on filial piety in nineteenth-century Marseilles? Those would all be pretty absurd. And yet we don’t think twice when we do the same thing the other way around.

      I’m aware that most philosophers are going to disagree–otherwise they wouldn’t have decided to become philosophers, after all–but it is a problem that I’ve seen over and over and over and over …

      • Joel Dietz (@fractastical) says:

        It’s essentially a metaphysical problem. The closer you get to ostensible descriptions of reality (i.e. is instead of ought), the more you think you can compare between different systems. If the epistemological presuppositions were clearly stated, it might even possible to do this. But most of this stuff is just ethics masquerading as metaphysics. It’s like finding an egg, imagining the chicken, and then comparing between systems on the basis of the harmony of it’s cluck. It’s amusing as a thought experiment but leaves the belly empty.

    • Manyul Im says:

      That’s helpful, Paul, though I don’t think natural kind issues are relevant. There are all kinds of things that wouldn’t qualify as natural kinds, artifacts like furniture or money, for example, that aren’t quite as problematic. In addition, the idea of natural kinds itself is Eurocentric in the same ways as the idea of philosophy is.

      More to your point, the direction of analysis might be important in some cases but not others. Filial piety, for example, seems to enjoy a pretty good match in Chinese and European history.

      Imperialism may also work in both directions; maybe we always have to choose a side when certain kinds of analysis are deployed, though if we have the alacrity, we can try jumping back and forth. I don’t know; you are correct that it takes some slogging to try to attain clarity here.

  5. To me, ‘Chinese Philosophy’ now just means the stuff that philosophy departments discuss about certain Chinese texts.

    Beyond that, I never saw what fusses were worth making over it. Something about caring about fruits and not flowers…

  6. Josh Mason says:

    What if we think of philosophy as the love of wisdom, and not as a technical discipline or method? Can we say that the ancient Chinese didn’t have a love of wisdom? Isn’t 智 considered a great virtue? When we study Chinese thinkers and writers, are we not engaging with those who pursued wisdom? Metaphysics aside, is the attitude behind Confucius’ fondness for learning 好学 so different from Socrates’ philo sophia? In “comparative philosophy” we read and engage with the wisest and most interesting thinkers from different cultures. Why not call that philosophy?

    • Paul R. Goldin says:

      Again, you’re automatically defining “philosophy” in Western terms. What would be the Chinese word for “love of wisdom”? Zhi 知/智 is (in some Chinese philosophers–not all) indeed a virtue, but it’s rarely the HIGHEST virtue. For example, I don’t think the Confucius of the Analects would regard wisdom as the highest pursuit–certainly not without practice (學而時習之, remember).

      Haoxue 好學 means love of learning, not love of wisdom. They aren’t the same thing.

      I really think it’s easier just to say that “philosophy” is not a traditional Chinese concept, and be done with the problem–so that we can move on to more interesting things. The more effort you put into trying to rehabilitate the whole concept, the less time there is left over for, you know, learning about the culture on its own terms.

      Essentially the same goes for “religion,” if people want to have that debate too.

      • Joel Dietz (@fractastical) says:

        Very true, but as of yet I’ve never seen an exhaustive and precise exposition of the salient differences between standard Western and Chinese approaches. For religion we clearly don’t have a native (i.e. emic) concept, so it is all Western “Orientalist” naming conventions. But with philosophy we do have some emic categorizations, so it’s worth grappling with them. As I’ve noted before, I think one of the earliest and most important of these is Wang Bi’s reductionist approach, but I’ve never read any literature that addresses this in anything close to the depth it deserves. I personally hate that the literature is fraught with frothy and incoherent comparisons, but, until someone deals extensively with the original texts on their own terms, I don’t see any better outcome.

  7. Franklin Perkins says:

    There are so many complications with this topic, but I’m curious why people think it matters whether or not China had philosophy. If our goal is to understand what was going on in China, then I think Paul is right that it would be better to follow Chinese terms and divisions. Europe’s peculiar division between philosophy and religion is more likely to confuse things than to provide clarity.

    The problem with that approach is the reality of the academic disciplines we have. If we say China didn’t have philosophy or religion, Chinese thought will only be taught in East Asian Studies. At least in my experience, that is the main context in which the question actually arises – do philosophers need to learn/teach anything about China? So it is more an issue of power than an intellectual question.

    Is there something more at stake than that?

  8. Kai Marchal says:

    This brief exchange is about to develop into a full-scale academic debate! My critique for Thorsten is that he is not willing to address the broader theoretical issues at stake, but is hiding behind a smoke-screen of very broad, culture-based, and actually very aggressive claims (though I still hope that he could come out with a more articulated defense of his views). Already today, China possesses much power around the globe; and it will even be more powerful in the near future. But might is not right. In general, I have much sympathy for Paul’s critique of context-insensitive applications of the term “philosophy” to pre-modern Chinese texts. But at the same time, Franklin does indeed have a point: since Chinese thought has in fact already become part of the world, it is not merely about “what was going on in China”. What anybody (not only sinologists) needs to realize is that the Chinese past is deeply intertwined with our own past – and similarly our present. Therefore, neither Western thinkers nor Chinese thinkers can hide behind culture- or civilization-based claims to authority anymore…

  9. Bill Haines says:

    Did old China have philosophy? Well, the word is famously understood in different ways by different people; I think it doesn’t make much sense to put forth such a view without saying something about what idea (or list of ideas) one is talking about.

    And if what China had is only at the periphery of the idea (whatever idea), then saying China did not have philosophy – or even refraining from saying it did – could be misleading.

    *

    Frank, you ask whether and why it matters whether China had philosophy. Surely the answer depends on what “philosophy” is – on what we mean by the word when we ask whether old China had it.

    For example, suppose we mean “love of wisdom.” Then the question amounts to, Does it matter whether there were thoughtful people in China who loved wisdom, who desired and pursued wisdom? Surely it matters whether there were or weren’t. Were there?

    Or we might mean, the effort to find adequately warranted answers to big basic questions about life, the world, and/or how to think and investigate well. I think it matters whether people in old China did that or not. Did they?

    Or (following what might be the half-exposed Zizek’s view, once fashionable among anglo-analytics) that philosophy is the analysis of the meanings of key words, I think it matters whether people in old China did that. Did they?

    Etc.

    *

    Are any of those ideas Eurocentric?

    *

    I think the idea “love of wisdom” has no plausibility as an account of what anybody means by “philosophy” in English. And little plausibility as an account of what anybody ever meant in Greek, with the possible exception of one Presocratic whose relevant words have been lost, and one semi-fictional character within a Platonic dialogue—though I suspect the character wasn’t talking straight. I think that if we are arguing from etymology, then “love of understanding” or “love of knowledge” may be a better translation.

    I think the main place the definition gets mentioned is in opening lectures of intro courses, where it is a pedagogical device rather than an actual view.

    *

    It seems to me offhand that what we mean by “philosophy” is defined by the topics it investigates, the questions it asks. It’s not defined by motives, and it’s not defined by any particular methods. Yes? Still, we do have some lore about what kinds of methods are more promising than others. And someone who eats licorice in the mistaken view that doing so will yield metaphysical knowledge isn’t thereby doing philosophy as we understand the term.

    If philosophy is indeed defined by topics rather than methods, then surely it’s not so hard to think that old China had philosophy?

    I’m inclined to think that what defines a topic or question as “philosophy” is (a) its generality, (b) its fundamentality to other things we do, and (c) its not being such that people have found out how to investigate it so reliably that they can reliably certify experts. Criterion (c) is relative to time and place, so that what was part of “philosophy” for Aristotle or Hume need not be for us; still we apply the term. Is that a problem?

    *

    Frank, you write:

    The problem with that approach is the reality of the academic disciplines we have. If we say China didn’t have philosophy or religion, Chinese thought will only be taught in East Asian Studies. At least in my experience, that is the main context in which the question actually arises – do philosophers need to learn/teach anything about China? So it is more an issue of power than an intellectual question.
    Is there something more at stake than that?

    I don’t understand the inference to “it is more an issue of power than an intellectual question.” I think the question whether philosophers need to learn/teach anything about China is an intellectual question, not a power question at all.

    Philosophers generally think they need to understand at least a little bit of a very wide variety of fields, which they don’t therefore call “philosophy” nor put in the department’s curriculum. Putting Chinese “philosophy” on the curriculum implies that China had some good philosophy. That’s the issue.

    It’s a question to which some idea we’re willing to call “philosophy” is essential; it’s not a question that can be investigated without using that idea (sticking instead to Chinese ideas, if that isn’t one).

    And for purposes of that question, there isn’t much reason to be interested in the distinction between saying “China didn’t have philosophy” and “There is no answer to the question whether China had philosophy, because it’s in a grey area.”

    *

    Of course, for those who think philosophy is more like literature or painting than the investigating of any actual questions, none of this may be very interesting. I think most people who have studied a fair amount of philosophy don’t think that, both because they wouldn’t have studied it if they did, and because the view can’t easily survive the study.

    *

    What features of philosophy are absent from old Chinese thought?

    • Paul R. Goldin says:

      I happen to think that Chinese philosophy is exactly like literature or painting (quite a coincidence, because I’m writing something about this just now), and I don’t see why you dissociate literature and painting from “the investigating of any actual questions.” There are plenty of questions to be investigated in literature and painting. I have to gather that you really mean “investigating questions in a specific mode.” And that specific mode is precisely the problem.

    • Bill Haines says:

      Hi Paul,

      Brief for now because I’m about to hit the road – -

      “There are plenty of questions to be investigated in literature and painting”

      – I’m not sure whether you mean (a) there are questions to investigate in the study of painting and lit, as there are in the study of philosophy, or (b) one can investigate broad questions partly by means of reading literature or looking at paintings, as one can in reading philosophy, or (c) one can investigate broad questions in painting or writing lit, as in the doing of philosophy — or something else.

      I do think one can investigate questions – even philosophical questions – partly by reading and/or writing literature, especially if one also thinks about the questions more directly. Of course painting can similarly help regarding some questions, such as questions about George Washington or about painting, and if someone says it can similarly help with more-philosophical questions I’ll grant it, but I doubt that the help is very great. Building chairs and digging ditches can help too.

      But among these broad classes of activity, only philosophy can be defined as being the investigation of questions, inquiry toward answering questions on a certain range of topics. Even if there are people whose involvement with painting is entirely the investigation of questions in a certain mode (can there be?), there is also plenty of painting that is not that, so that’s not what painting is.

      When I said that “[I don’t think] philosophy is more like literature or painting than the investigating of any actual questions,” I was talking about what these things are.

      More about that later.

      *

      Your topic about Chinese philosophy sounds very interesting, and I look forward to learning from it. Do you keep scare-quotes around “philosophy,” in spirit?

      Maybe the thought is this:

      Picture
      The Anglo assumption is that although the strictly a priori pursuit of philosophical questions is highly unpromising, still we tend to reserve the activity-name “philosophy” for the thinking (and Diomedean conversing) part of the larger investigative project that has to include our life experience, our historical reading, etc. The Chinese approach to the same or similar questions did not involve a large thinking or discussing part. But it did report conclusions; it led people to accept and make general statements that address the questions.

      If it’s like that, then I want to say this:

      In fact, in a secondary sense, ‘philosophy’ is not an uncountable noun naming an activity, but is rather a countable noun that refers to sets of views on philosophical questions, as in “List the main points of Hume’s philosophy of mind” – and is an uncountable noun referring to such stuff. In this secondary sense, according to the Picture above, old China had philosophies and philosophy.

      Is it true that the Chinese approach to the same questions did not involve a significant thinking or discussing part?

      • Paul R. Goldin says:

        It’s hard for me to say much about “the Chinese approach to the same questions” because you don’t specify the questions.

        In fact, generally I think you’re being vague about how you conceive of philosophical questions as opposed to other kinds of questions. I’m left with little recourse but to reconstruct what you might mean, and I don’t like what I’m reconstructing. When you talk about “significant thinking,” once again you seem to be implying that only a certain type of thinking qualifies as “significant.” And so we end up, as usual, trying to judge whether China did or did not have “philosophy” by assessing how well its intellectual resources compare with what we’re accustomed to calling “philosophy” in the West. That’s exactly the bind that keep Chinese philosophy in the losing position that Frank Perkins was talking about above: either it’s just like Western philosophy, but inevitably thinner, or else it’s nothing like Western philosophy, in which case it can be disregarded entirely.

        As concisely as I can state it, my view is that Chinese readers–literati, whatever you want to call them–read and judged what we call philosophy in essentially the same mode that they read and judged any other kind of art, be it literature, visual art, or music. Doesn’t matter whether it’s the Odes or the Analects: you take it as the wisdom of the sages, material that’s “good to think with,” to borrow a phrase from Lévi-Strauss. And the primary concerns tend to be moral.

    • Franklin Perkins says:

      Hi Bill,

      In saying it is more an issue of power, I meant that in my experience, it doesn’t usually arise as a disinterested question but rather as a way of asserting that Chinese materials should or should not be included in some context. That appears in the whole framing of the question. If the goal were just better understanding of similarities and differences between China and Europe, one would describe various practices on both sides and then analyze how they relate to each other. That is quite different from arguing whether or not the label “philosophy” applies to China. The meaning of philosophy is so vague (as you point out) that it is difficult to see the value of using it in a comparison, aside the power the label itself has.

      As for Eurocentrism, I don’t think the claim is that “love of wisdom” or “the effort to find adequately warranted answers to big basic questions” are Eurocentric (and I certainly would not say they are uniquely European), but rather that choosing them as the issue or measure is Eurocentric, at least if we don’t also consider practices the Chinese themselves picked out as important. Just as an offhand example, I think there were Chinese who pursued wisdom, but in general I would say they pursued self cultivation, with wisdom as a part of that. So there is something misleading and Eurocentric in focusing only on the love of wisdom (or whichever of the definitions of philosophy you use) rather than beginning by asking what they were doing and how they conceived it.

      Just to be clear in giving my own position, I think the issue of power does matter, and so in most context I do argue that there is Chinese philosophy.

      Sorry for the late reply – I was already on the road when you responded.

      • Bill Haines says:

        Thanks! “as the issue or measure” — of what?

      • Bill Haines says:

        Hi Frank,

        I think you’re saying that when you spoke of power your point was that

        (a) the following question is mainly a power issue, not otherwise interesting:
        the question whether we should apply the label “philosophy” to some (or how much) of what we find in old China is mainly a power issue, not otherwise interesting.

        And you’re saying that this doesn’t commit you to the claim that

        (b) the following question is mainly a power issue, not otherwise interesting:
        the question whether some (or how much) of what we find in old China is in fact “philosophy” according to any or all of the extant accounts of what that word refers to in its mainstream English academic use.

        I want to say that claims (a) and (b) can legitimately be separated if the best accounts of “philosophy” are all over the map so that the word doesn’t really have any integrity; but if the best accounts are few and similar to each other (and not such as to build in specific reference to uniquely European culture), then (a) and (b) can’t legitimately be separated. Or at least, (a) can’t legitimately be separated from (b1):

        (b1) the following question is mainly a power issue, not otherwise interesting:
        the question whether some (or how much) of what we find in old China is in fact “philosophy” according to the best several extant accounts of what that word refers to in its mainstream English academic use.

        I did suggest that the word ‘philosophy’ is vague. But on further consideration I want to say this instead: the word is tricky in that many and varied conceptions have their faithful followers, such that especially in a context like this one has to ask what the person means to be talking about. But I suspect the plausible accounts of the term (as it’s used to mark academic departments) aren’t so varied, so that (a) and (b1) may not be separable.

        What I was asking about in my obscure quick question above was this: when you said:

        As for Eurocentrism, I don’t think the claim is that … “the effort to find adequately warranted answers to big basic questions” [is] Eurocentric (and I certainly would not say they are uniquely European), but rather that choosing [it] as the issue or measure is Eurocentric, at least if we don’t also consider practices the Chinese themselves picked out as important.

        it seemed to me that what you meant was “… choosing it as the measure of whether there was philosophy in old China is Eurocentric ” in which case my reply would be that it is the prima facie measure, and that “practices the Chinese themselves picked out as important” are, in general, prima facie not relevant. Eating, for example, they’d regard as important. But obviously you must mean something narrower – practices they picked out as important for – what?

        Maybe you meant “choosing it as the measure” of something else.

        Here’s a point of principle. I think using an idea that is not natural and that was developed only in Europe in investigating non-Europeans is obviously not in general a prima facie Eurocentric thing to do. Isn’t this wholly beyond question? What’s prima facie Eurocentric is simply assuming of something because it is a cultural practice in Europe that it can be found in old China. Asking whether it can and how far is not prima facie Eurocentric.

        I think the reason philosophers as such outside of China are and should be concerned about whether there was philosophy in old China is not because they want to understand old China – that’s not their job – but because they want help (e.g. challenges) in doing philosophy. That’s their job as philosophers. If I’m right that it’s not a question about empty labels, then it’s not a mere power struggle.

  10. Manyul Im says:

    It occurs to me that some of the issues here are discussed in Wiebke Denecke’s book on “Masters Literature,” aspects of which I review here in a previous post: link to warpweftandway.com. You can access the whole review on my academia.edu site now. But you should read her book really, not my review, for substantive views about attaching “Chinese” to “philosophy” as a modifier.

    • Paul R. Goldin says:

      Yes, although my quibble with Denecke is that her concept of “Masters literature” is incoherent and anachronistic as well. It has the advantage of being emic, but it’s originally a bibliographical category, and was invented long after the classical philosophers were dead. For that matter, there’s plenty of philosophical literature not included in the category of zi 子, for example, the Zuozhuan 左傳 (which literati would have read at least as attentively as something like Xunzi), and of course the archetypal text, Lunyu 論語, which was classified as jing 經, not 子. Not to mention that “Masters literature” is inapplicable to almost the entirety of excavated documents. So that can’t be the right answer either.

  11. Bill Haines says:

    A 1

    Paul, you write:

    It’s hard for me to say much about “the Chinese approach to the same questions” because you don’t specify the questions. In fact, generally I think you’re being vague about how you conceive of philosophical questions as opposed to other kinds of questions. I’m left with little recourse but to reconstruct what you might mean, and I don’t like what I’m reconstructing.

    Fair enough. By my phrase “the Chinese approach to the same questions” I didn’t mean some specific list of questions; I meant to be referring back to “philosophical questions” – for which I had proposed the following general account – a familiar sort of account to anglo philosophers – which is indeed fuzzy:

    I’m inclined to think that what defines a topic or question as “philosophy” is (a) its generality, (b) its fundamentality to other things we do, and (c) its not being such that people have found out how to investigate it so reliably that they can reliably certify experts.

    (Note: the account is fuzzy in large part because its terms are matters of degree; that’s different from its being hard to apply because it relies on arbitrary local cultural forms, yes? And the borders of what counts as philosophy are, among academic philosophers, universally acknowledged to be very fuzzy in respect of these matters of degree; so this sort of fuzziness in an account would be an accuracy in the account.)

    Current prominent or paradigmatic examples would be: what is morality in general? What if any is the basic principle or few basic principles of morality or ethics? What counts as good thinking? How can we know or best know anything, or anything in this or that field? What are we? What exists; what are the main categories of existent? – that sort of thing. (And of course in trying to think about those we get into subsidiary questions.)

    If this account is inadequate for purposes of our engaging here – is the problem that mainly the topics of the statements from China that you take to be among the best candidates for being “philosophical” don’t easily seem to you to fit within the area I’ve tried to sketch? What would be a couple of examples?

    A 2

    … and I don’t like what I’m reconstructing. When you talk about “significant thinking,” once again you seem to be implying that only a certain type of thinking qualifies as “significant.”

    I did not mention “significant thinking” (though I do think some thinking is insignificant, by almost any standard).

    Rather, I asked (in connection with a hypothesis I had spelled out about an aspect of your view): “Is it true that the Chinese approach to the same questions did not involve a significant thinking or discussing part?” – that is, is thinking or discussing [I meant, thinking or discussing that explicitly investigates whatever questions the final statements would answer] not a significant (large) part of the Chinese approach? This question suggests no judgment about the significance (value) of the rest of the approach.

    A 3

    … implying that only a certain type of thinking qualifies as “significant.” And so we end up, as usual, trying to judge whether China did or did not have “philosophy” by assessing how well its intellectual resources compare with what we’re accustomed to calling “philosophy” in the West. That’s exactly the bind that keep Chinese philosophy in the losing position that Frank Perkins was talking about above: either it’s just like Western philosophy, but inevitably thinner, or else it’s nothing like Western philosophy, in which case it can be disregarded entirely.

    I don’t think I said anything that could suggest or imply that every activity is either exactly like Western philosophy or nothing like Western philosophy.

    I think that by “can be disregarded entirely” you might mean “can legitimately not have any whole courses or whole specialists in philosophy departments.” That’s what Frank was talking about. I’ve just been trying to talk about whether and how far there was philosophy in old China. If we can face the question and answer “Yes, lots,” that may solve the problem.

    A 4

    Brian Bruya
    quoted
    Walter Mignolo quoting Robert Bernasconi:

    Western philosophy traps African philosophy in a double bind: either African philosophy is so similar to Western philosophy that it makes no distinctive contribution and effectively disappears; or it is so different that its credentials to be genuine philosophy will always be in doubt.

    In Bernasconi’s account of the bind, the agent causing the bind seems to be Western philosophy itself. The internets tell me he’s talking about Continental philosophy, but they don’t tell me how he thinks it generates the bind. If Mignolo’s context suggests an idea about the source of the bind, the suggestion might be this (I’m not quoting):

    Different cultures are concerned with different questions. If “philosophy” is defined by its questions (topics), and we identify the definitive topics by looking at what Western philosophers have been concerned with, we’ll automatically be defining distinctive African (or Chinese] philosophy out of existence.

    This picture is very different from the picture that people define Chinese philosophy out of existence because it doesn’t use Western methods. But the two pictures have this in common: that the selection of questions and/or methods that Westerners associate with the word “philosophy” is somehow merely conventional or arbitrary, and Westerners talking about whether and how far there is philosophy in China simply confuse their arbitrary batches of questions/methods with natural concepts or natural standards, or with a legitimately objective category of intellectual pursuit.

    A 5

    It seems to me that thinkers in old China addressed many topics that easily count as philosophical by Western or at least Anglo standards. At least that’s the obvious surface appearance, and I’m inclined to accept it, and I think it’s widely accepted even by anglo philosophers. If that’s right, then to show that there was philosophy in old China – a fair amount of it, and good enough philosophy to merit sustained attention from Philosophy departments – one would then have to show that there was a fair amount of genuine investigation of those questions, and fair-quality investigation.

    That would bring us to matters of method, but not in a way that simply takes certain familiar methods as defined into the term ‘philosophy’ by mere linguistic convention reflecting cultural myopia. Rather, all that’s presupposed is the abstract ideas of quantity of investigation and quality of investigation. If there are Chinese methods that Western philosophers have slighted but that are defensible, the question does nothing to resist their claims.

    A 6

    On the other hand, Paul writes

    As concisely as I can state it, my view is that Chinese readers–literati, whatever you want to call them–read and judged what we call philosophy in essentially the same mode that they read and judged any other kind of art, be it literature, visual art, or music. Doesn’t matter whether it’s the Odes or the Analects: you take it as the wisdom of the sages, material that’s “good to think with,” to borrow a phrase from Lévi-Strauss. And the primary concerns tend to be moral.

    I take it Paul means this is also the spirit in which the texts were developed. Which suggests that the old Chinese statements that seem to be proposed answers to philosophical questions are in fact something else. I’m sympathetic
    sympathetic to this view, as is Steve Angle , and cf. this .

    I want to say: Yes, what seem to be statements expressing philosophical propositions are meant to function in sort of the way pictures and poems do – but many or most of them might at the same time be the philosophical statements they seem on their face to be. I want to have it both ways.

    But I’m not basing that view on any extended study or recent thought. And my exposure to Chinese philosophy really is limited to just a few pre-Qin texts, so I have no views of my own about what came later. Can we not have it both ways?

    A 7

    Suppose we can only have it Paul’s way. Can we still say that there is in fact old Chinese philosophy, real philosophy, lots of it, and good enough for whole courses and whole specialists in many Departments of Philosophy today?

    There might be lots of different ways of making that case. Here’s one proposed approach; I’d love to hear others.

    Someone who champions a very general maxim – I mean, say, a maxim about good faith or ritual in general, not a maxim about how to remove coffee stains from silk – may think of it as good for anyone to think with, or good for anyone in certain circumstances that arise for some people in any culture. If so, then championing the maxim is but one trivial remove from championing the proposition that this maxim is good for anyone (or for anyone in certain common circumstances) to think with. That looks to me like a solid example of a philosophical proposition.

    So then to find out whether the champion was doing philosophy, we’d want to know how she arrived at the maxim, and maybe tried and failed to arrive at others. What sort of inquiry or investigation did she undertake (alone or with others)? I don’t know what to say about this in general, for Chinese maximizers. On the optimistic side there’s the point that experience is relevant and we all have that. There are some relevant remarks in the Analects.

    Paul, is part of your project some general view about how Chinese philosophers arrived at their statements?

    A 8

    As I quasi-said in an earlier comment here, I think that while one the one hand mainstream anglo philosophers think philosophy is not a priori but rather is a distillation of experience through thought – nevertheless on the other hand they tend to use the word ‘philosophy’ to refer specifically to the thinking part of the process – and in particular, thinking directly about the questions or propositions being investigated. I should add that my impression is that there isn’t much commitment to that dividing line as definitive of “philosophy,” or as easy to draw.

  12. Bill Haines says:

    Paul, you write:

    When you call something “philosophy,” inevitably you’re applying Eurocentric protocols. And those don’t work very well when you’re talking about China.

    Why doesn’t anyone ever talk about Seneca’s conception of 仁? Or whether Christ was a Daoist? How about a dissertation on filial piety in nineteenth-century Marseilles? Those would all be pretty absurd. And yet we don’t think twice when we do the same thing the other way around.

    I’m aware that most philosophers are going to disagree–otherwise they wouldn’t have decided to become philosophers, after all–but it is a problem that I’ve seen over and over and over and over …

    B 1

    “Talking about Seneca’s conception of仁” could mean talking what he means by the word – but you can’t mean that.

    The alternative is that you are talking about the case where the conversants share the term “仁” – that is, they have or think they have a concept of 仁 in common, they think there is a thing they successfully refer to by using the word among themselves – and they try to discuss what if any views Seneca had about that thing.

    Maybe Chinese historians of philosophy meet that condition and do ask whether and what is Seneca’s conception of仁. Or maybe they don’t meet that condition.

    Why don’t any Anglophones ask the question? The standard first-approximation view among Anglophone interpreters of the Chinese term, I gather, has for years been that the word is ambiguous as between full virtue and kindness. For neither of those ideas is there an obvious need for Anglophones to have recourse to a Chinese term.

    If there is something unique and interesting about the term, maybe it is in some assumption built into the term, about the psychological stability and simplicity that is (perhaps) to be found in going along with others and with one’s tradition. If we can work up some rudimentary account of 仁 that specifically connects with that suggestion, we’ll be able to ask the relevant question about Seneca, and it might have an interesting answer.

    仁 is an especially disputable term, and Seneca an especially peripheral philosopher (and especially uninterested in tradition I think).

    So why do Western writers in or about philosophy never or almost never talk about Western philosophers’ conceptions of things only Chinese thinkers had names for at the core of their discourse? I think that’s an interesting question. To a large extent I think it can be chalked up to the rare combination of interests and competence that would be required to discuss such questions, and the still inchoate state of understanding of old Chinese ideas, and the paucity of Chinese terms that we think we understand together but for which we do not have easy equivalent English word or phrase. Do you agree?

    I don’t think it’s because people think it’s prima facie absurd, as you suggest, to ask for a Western thinker’s conception of something named with a Chinese name.

    I suppose what you’re on about here is that we ought not to be cavalierly confident in expecting to find say, “Confucius’ conception of community” or “Zhuangzi’s conception of salvation.” I completely agree. I am curious to know what are a couple of common and egregious cases.

    B 2

    If it’s absurd to ask whether Jesus was or Christ is a Daoist, I suppose that’s not because there aren’t lots of Anlgophones who talk about both things in the same college course. I suppose it’s mainly because scholars are agreed that the term ‘Daoist’ is extremely vague at best, so there’s hardly a question there; and maybe Jesus and Christ are nowhere in the neighborhood, so that there’s no question there that isn’t too easy to be interesting. Thus there may be plenty of big obvious reason why we don’t ask that, quite independent of any differences of intellectual culture between the two milieux. (Still, there may be something interesting to be learned by comparing the use of parables in the Gospels and the Zhuangzi. But it’s very rare for philosophers to talk about Jesus or Christ as a thinker, at all.)

    Sam Crane talks about that kind of question all the time.
    link to uselesstree.typepad.com

    Perhaps your thought is that the question whether Christ is a Daoist is parallel to e.g. the question whether Mencius was a consequentialist, or the question whether Confucius was a virtue theorist?

    I don’t see any absurdity in these questions. Certainly not any absurdity built into the fact that the questions are formulated with ideas developed outside China.

    I think the term ‘consequentialism’ differs from its shady companions ‘deontology’ and ‘virtue theory’ in this way: it’s not absurd to think the term ‘consequentialism’ refers to an idea so simple and elementary that it is nearly a natural idea. This makes the question about Mencius not a candidate for being absurd on grounds of any putatively obvious cultural specificity of the idea of consequentialism.

    But I also don’t see any absurdity in asking whether Confucius as represented in the Analects was a virtue theorist, even if implausible ideas that Aristotle half-flirted with are defined into the term “virtue theory” for no very good reason. Do you?

    B 3

    Filial piety in 19thC Marseilles – Is it absurd to write a dissertation on that? I don’t know. I guess I think of “filial piety” primarily as respect and care for parents grounded partly in an idea that this is a general requirement on people because parents are some sort of vicar for higher/broader authorities. (I think of it as not logically essential to filial piety that it extend to lifelong obedience, serving up one’s leg, etc.) I think filial piety in this sense I’ve defined is not unheard of in Christian communities, but I don’t have a clue about the particular religious characteristics of 19thC Marseilles. Perhaps for people who know something about the communities involved, it would be absurd to think of filial piety so defined as widespread in 19thC Marseilles, but not absurd to think of it as standard for Plymouth Colony.

    B 4

    I’m aware that most philosophers are going to disagree–otherwise they wouldn’t have decided to become philosophers, after all–but it is a problem that I’ve seen over and over and over and over …

    What is the point that they’re going to disagree with? Is it one of these?

    (a) Calling something “philosophy” is inevitably using a concept drawn in arbitrary and specifically Western ways.

    (b) Looking for old Chinese conceptions of things named by key terms in Western philosophy is absurd.

    Either way, I don’t see a prima facie connection between disagreeing with that point and wanting to become a philosopher. What is the connection?

    On (b): I agree that it’s absurd to have a confident expectation that there are Chinese views on precisely the things named by all the key terms in Western philosophy. (At least, this is absurd for anyone who has some exposure to very non-Western intellectual culture. For others, it may just be naive.) But I don’t think it is absurd to look into Chinese texts to see whether or how far there are old Chinese views on some things named by key terms in Western philosophy (as someone not at first familiar with the texts might look for views on 信 in Seneca or look to see whether the Jesus of Q was a Daoist). Do you?

  13. Bill Haines says:

    C 1

    Paul, it wasn’t a coincidence above that I brought up a comparison between philosophy and literature/painting. I was thinking of your statement in the recent Mignolo thread:

    I don’t understand how university administrations have allowed so many Philosophy departments to continue to pretend that the world consists of Europe and North America. If you look at English departments, or Comp. Lit. departments, or Music departments, you’ll simply no longer find one whose faculty focuses solely on Europe and North America. And partly that’s because search proposals aren’t approved if they relate solely to Europe and North America. But for whatever reason, Philosophy departments have been permitted to avoid this trend.

    The participant understanding in Philosophy departments is that philosophy is inquiry toward answering a certain kind of question; inquiry toward developing understanding or knowledge on certain kinds of topic. The main business of the department is to do that activity. (A piece of auxiliary business is to study past instances of that investigative activity; but the main manner of doing that is as though the past instance is an interlocutor, a partner in the main investigative activity: rather as a physicist might read papers in physics journals. One entertains the ideas (not vice versa).)

    Most other departments are analogous. Music departments are not, because the main business of the department is to train people in an activity that is not investigative: the making of music (performing, composing). Literature departments are analogous to the other departments, but the investigative activity is not the doing (making) of literature. Rather it is the study of literature.

    C 2

    Physics, History, Literature, Music – the first three departments are concerned to study a wide geographical distribution of objects; but none of them, I think, gives a great deal of attention to the aim of studying a wide geographical distribution of instances of any investigative activity; certainly administrators do not insist that they do. We do not therefore say that these departments “pretend that the world consists of Europe and North America” or wherever.

    You might reject the participant understanding of Philosophy departments, perhaps on the grounds that the kinds of claim that those folks attack and defend about cannot in fact be true or false. What those people take for an investigative activity, you might think, is only pseudo-investigative; it is better understood as something like the writing of novels. And then you might think that Philosophy departments would do well to think of themselves more as Literature departments think of themselves: insofar as they aim at investigative or scholarly quality they should aim at the study of instances of philosophy. The auxiliary should become the main thing (and it shouldn’t be pursued in the current way). And then it might make sense to organize most of the curriculum by time and place rather than by topic (morality, ontology).

    (Someone who held this view might add the following: “There is a general presumption that any sizable culture that has been around for a while will have a fair amount of art (literature, music, etc.). So if a department in charge of Literature or Music fails to consider the Literature or Music of Japan, then prima facie it is fair to describe the situation thus: they are pretending that Japan does not exist.” I think you do not accept this remark’s premise about literature and music, and so I suppose you don’t share the similar premise about philosophy.)

    Of course we should still face the question what counts as philosophy – where that genre can be found and where it cannot.

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