Warp, Weft, and Way

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

Another Round on Chinese Thought as Philosophy

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In case you missed it, Nicholas Tampio recently published a short piece in Aeon explaining why he thinks Confucius (among other non-Western thinkers) should not be regarded as a philosopher, with implications for the philosophy curriculum and the makeup of philosophy faculties. This is a response to the recent New York Times piece by Jay Garfield and Bryan Van Norden.  Tampio and Van Norden subsequently exchanged tweets on the topic. Amy Olberding replies thoroughly and with humor here, and Ethan Mills responds on behalf of Indian philosophy here.

Where to begin?

There are no arguments in Tampio’s piece that we haven’t heard before, but I welcome it. What has been most maddening about this debate is that, until five or six years ago, it barely existed except in informal, fleeting conversations of little consequence, or in one-sided arguments from the Chinese side that were met with silence. It is a relief to have something like fixed success criteria from the other side, with at least the rhetorical suggestion that it would have real-world implications if (1) Chinese thought could meet those criteria or (2) one could justify revising them. Tampio and other critics do us a favor when they make on-the-record arguments and sign their names to them.

(1) So let’s consider whether Chinese thought could meet the proposed criteria. Tampio says all philosophy must be either Plato or footnotes to Plato. The past century of Chinese philosophy is footnotes to Plato, much of it explicitly engaging with Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel, offering novel accounts and defenses of philosophical intuitions, idealism, democracy, rights, and the foundations of ethics. Done.

(2) But do we really want to insist that all philosophy after Plato be his footnotes? No. Plato established the rules, but it’s a sure bet that some of the rules are fundamentally flawed. He got everyone playing chmess when the game that really matters is chess, or go. Suppose it was a mistake to distinguish between essential and accidental properties. Suppose he makes subtler, chmessy assumptions that he and all of his footnotes take for granted. Philosophy wouldn’t be what it is—and it wouldn’t thrive—if it didn’t engage with those who propose different rules. And even if the source material doesn’t have its origins in Plato that doesn’t rule out subsequently drawing on the tradition of Plato to enrich the discussion. If it did then there would be no medieval European philosophy, arguably no philosophy of science, and the tradition of Plato itself may not have survived.

We’ve been given some pragmatic arguments for restricting philosophy to Plato’s footnotes. Tampio suggests that the push to include Islamic, Indian, and Chinese philosophers imperils funding for philosophy departments. But the truth is exactly the opposite. The more philosophy resists inclusion of non-Western traditions, the more likely that it will be painted as too parochial to support. Ordinary philosophy departments are under enormous pressure to include non-Western thinkers, and that pressure will increase for the foreseeable future. If you, as a department chair, are told that you can’t hire a third M&E person until you hire someone in Chinese or Indian philosophy, or detect that you won’t get support for a third M&E hire unless the hire can teach Chinese or Indian philosophy as well, what would you do? Perhaps you could invoke a disciplinary consensus against inclusion, but good luck finding a consensus about the scope of philosophy amongst philosophers, and good luck persuading your dean with it.

And besides, there’s a very plausible case for seeing it as a moral imperative to bring non-Western thinkers into the dialogue, a case that is likely to seem obvious twenty years from now. Who wants to risk being another villain in the history books?

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