Approaches to Chinese and Comparative Philosophy–What Are We Doing?

I’ve been thinking recently about a difficulty in our field in general.  Especially after reading some comments on an earlier post on publishing in Chinese philosophy, it seems a good time to discuss this issue.  There are, all of us would admit, a number of different and sometimes opposing methodologies concerning how we read, interpret, and use ancient Chinese philosophical material in our work.  We have different agendas, and have different methods of reading and using texts and ancient material based on these agendas.  However, we often fail to lay our cards on the table concerning these agendas when we write, and also fail to understand authors’ approaches when we read them, and this makes for confusion and tension as the field of Chinese and comparative philosophy attempts to grow to a more prominent position within philosophy in general.  I am thinking here of Chinese philosophy as done by philosophers primarily, because I recognize there are different, and sometimes incompatible, agendas for others in different fields as well, which complicates the issue even further.  I think it would be helpful, going forward, to devote more attention to these issues, which would help us come to a better understanding of just what we’re trying to do when we concentrate on Chinese and comparative philosophy.

One (of many) of the divides we have within the field is one that also exists in the mainstream in general—that between historians of philosophy and non-historian philosophers (the latter not people unconcerned with history but rather primarily interested in solving philosophical problems).   The agendas of these two philosophers will be very different—one is concerned with discovering what Confucius held concerning virtue, for example, while the other may be more concerned with discovering the correct (or, an adequate) theory of virtue.  It seems to me that this divide is recognized and respected in “mainstream” philosophy in a way it is not (as much, at least) within Chinese philosophy.

Speaking for myself, I am mainly a historian of philosophy, in the sense that when I am thinking and writing about Confucius, Xunzi, Wang Chong, or some other historical figure, I am concerned primarily with what their views were, not whether these views are correct, or even plausible for that matter.  This kind of project seems to me wholly unproblematic, and I believe many philosophers working on historical figures in the western tradition (the ancient Greeks, medievals, early moderns, etc.) would agree with this assessment.  However, one sometimes encounters within our own field resistance to this way of engaging ancient Chinese philosophers.  The expectation in some quarters of the field seems to me to be that we ought to use the ancient Chinese material to illuminate debates in contemporary ethics in the west, or that we should somehow show how the ancient Chinese philosophers fit into the categories of contemporary debates—worrying about whether Confucius or Mencius was a “virtue ethicist”, etc.

The tension one encounters, then, is that if one is offering an interpretation of, say, Xunzi on 性 xing, which attributes to him an implausible view, even though one has argued adequately why it is justified to think that Xunzi actually did hold such an implausible view, some will reject the importance of this project.  They may hold that it does not “advance the debate”, as though the only relevant debate is one surrounding which ethical views on human nature in general are most plausible, and not the debate surrounding what Xunzi actually held about xing.

I agree with Chris Fraser, in his comments on the post I mentioned above, that the clash of these different agendas is probably due to the relative immaturity of the field of Chinese and comparative philosophy.  It seems to me that one way of attempting to fix this problem is to be up front about our agendas, and take time to think about and perhaps document the different philosophical pursuits within the field.  This way, we can apply standards relative to the project one is pursuing, and thus be able to more adequately appraise the quality of any given piece of work in Chinese or comparative philosophy.  Of course, there will not be clear and obvious boundaries between different kinds of project, and there will often be overlap.  We can, however, isolate generally different concerns and projects.  We can, for example, easily see the distinction between purely historical work and more creative-constructive work involving ancient Chinese thinkers, just as we can tell the difference between a historical work on Plato’s theory of Forms and a work which attempts to construct a unique metaphysical theory by using elements of Plato’s theory, or a view “inspired by” Plato’s theory.  Authors have to be more explicit about what their projects are from the outset of their works (I’ve read work in Chinese philosophy, for example, which leaves me confused about the author’s goals and agenda until relatively late in the work or even on a second reading), and reviewers for journals and publishers have to take into account the relevant standards for success of the project in question when they are appraising a work.

Perhaps then the next step, once we have come to some general agreement about what the projects and agendas are, would be a discussion of which projects and agendas are good ones, and which are not (another difficult and controversial issue).  I am of the mind that allowing for a variety of different methods of doing Chinese and comparative philosophy is a good thing, but that not all approaches are useful or good for the field in general.  Any approach to Chinese and comparative philosophy could, for example, have its own rigorous internal standards but still be absurd (think of a view that the best way to approach Chinese philosophers is to compare what they say with contemporary soap advertisements, and that we have an adequate interpretation of, say, Mencius, when we find the interpretation of Mencius that comes closest to the views espoused in soap ads!)

Fortunately, we have here assembled at “Warp, Weft, and Way” a number of scholars with different approaches to Chinese and comparative philosophy.  What are your thoughts on all this?  Let’s get this conversation started!

19 replies on “Approaches to Chinese and Comparative Philosophy–What Are We Doing?”

  1. Hey Alexus; great post.

    I’ve been thinking about this on and off too and there are some things that I’m less sure about than I used to be.

    I’m not sure “purely historical work” is identifiable, at least in the history of philosophy, because I’m not sure what “pure” history of philosophy would be. It seems to me that whether we do historical philosophical reconstruction or constructive reconstruction (which, of course, sounds redundant), to which the former is supposed to be in opposition, we’re actually doing a similar thing in each case. In both cases we’re providing an interpretation of the texts and figures by outlining their patterns of concern and trying to identify their rhetorical and argumentative strategies for those purposes.

    I think the distinction you’re going for is more substantively about what you think those patterns of concern and the corresponding rhetorical/argumentative strategies are — including what intellectual pressures they respond to. To the extent that you’re more inclined to historicize (versus contemporize) those things, your argument is substantive; it’s the argument that those patterns and strategies are, as a matter of fact, not relevant to contemporary concerns. But these days at least, I don’t feel like that’s an argument about approach to interpretation (or “agenda”) so much as about the relevance and accuracy of the particular interpretation’s substance.

  2. Hi Alexus,

    I agree that a philosopher’s piece on Chinese philosophy should be up front about what kind of project it is, and I think journal editors in this field should be more welcoming of purely historical interpretation than they are.

    I wonder whether your post is inspired in some part by the sense that possibly some types of project currently being pursued are not especially desirable, and/or depend in some way on the target audience’s not having a clear view of what the agenda is. If so, I wonder if you or anyone else could describe a broad kind of project that you think people might actually be tempted to pursue, that is not especially desirable and/or that depends on being at least somewhat esoteric.

    For example, one such project might be this: to recruit the authority of an early text in support of certain ideas by tendentiously reading those ideas into the text, with significantly less concern for historical accuracy than the language of one’s claims and arguments immediately suggests. Is that the sort of thing you have in mind?
    It is hard to prompt a debate about esoteric agendas, I guess, unless one is willing to play devil’s advocate.

  3. To the extent that there are “clashes” between different agendas — the “you’re not advancing MY debate” reaction to which Alexus refers — then this is definitely a bad thing. It’s an instance of the more general phenomenon one sometimes sees from referees or reviewers, namely, “I wish you had written a different book/article from the one you actually wrote.” This is rarely a fair or helpful kind of reaction.

    I’m not sure how much this goes on, but being upfront with one’s methodology and agenda should definitely help to inoculate one against it. Somewhat like Manyul, I don’t really see this as a matter of two distinct methodologies, but rather a continuum: to one degree or other, we’re always both historian and philosopher, to varying degrees and in different ways. (Maybe “continuum” is actually too linear to plot out the differences I have in mind?) Rarely are two approaches so distant from one another that their authors cannot learn from one another, so long as they approach each other charitably and understand the work in its own terms — just as Alexus asks.

    The attribution of an “implausible view” is a particularly interesting question, in my view. Implausibility is certainly a defect from the vantage point of contemporary philosophical construction. It also may be a defect — though much less damningly so — in cases of (relatively) pure historical interpretation. This latter point can be made at a high level of abstraction (Davidson’s principle of charity, Grandy’s principle of humanity, and so on). More concretely, one can say that ALL ELSE EQUAL, a plausible interpretation is stronger than an implausible one. Insofar as we can make sense of why someone would find a view plausible, we have a stronger reason to prefer that interpretation of the view, and one reason to think that “they” found it plausible is if “we” do. This is only one reason, though, since often enough we can tell a convincing story about how and why “they” found a view plausible that “we” see as implausible.

    In any event, thanks to Alexus for keeping this (probably eternal) topic bubbling. I look forward to seeing many of the blog’s readers in New York at the APA in the next few days (despite the fact that I’ll be holed up in a hotel room interviewing job candidates part of the time)!

  4. Thanks for the read.

    I was most intrigued by the distinction between the historical and non-historical philosopher that you presented, namely in how I would apply it to someone like myself and perhaps others here.

    I take an active interest in the history and actual holdings of the philosophers that I read, Chinese or otherwise, but only for the sake of arguing for/against them correctly. In terms of text interpretation, I reduce those kinds of projects to quests for maximal textual coherence that can actually be subject to evidential empirical testing.

    Now, in my case, I assumed that my position was a product of my circumstance, adhering to a doctrine from a school whose surviving discussion largely marginalizes and dismisses it in the least fairest ways. My side has a rather mangled history, to boot, and it really hasn’t gotten the kind of gracious offenses that I felt that it deserved despite being a “dominant school” at one point.

    Here, then, is a practical dilemma. If you defend views of ethics, politics, and metaphilosophy that no one in its own historical era attacks with any real seriousness, but that has generated some serious criticisms in other eras, how does the non-historical philosopher make reasonable gains in essentially “picking up where one left off” (two millennia prior) and dismantling semi-analogous criticisms and the (I would argue misguided) systems of today?

    It’s like trying to wear a tank top as a sweater. To the contemporaries, the position either doesn’t strike them as immediately relevant or is simply outside of their popular reading. To the ancients, the position wasn’t even worth their time to handle it fairly. Western philosophers by in large have shown incapable of good response (due to its foreign content) and Chinese philosophers don’t really engage it (due to its fragmented history). I really hope that the lesson of philosophy general isn’t that subversiveness of a view, no matter its argument, begets its own obscurity, or worse, that neglect of content is tantamount to its negation.

    What category is there for the historically displaced philosopher? Can he really do non-historical philosophy in any capacity if his source material is too obscure? Can he really do historical philosophy if the history is relatively scant?

  5. I agree with your philosopher/historian distinction, and I think the next step may be (for the philosophically inclined) to articulate what philosophical problems can potentially be resolved by an appropriation of techniques or thoughts from a non-native tradition — and, most importantly, why these problems can be resolved with this new tradition.

    Ultimately, this may be a methodological, linguistic or epistemic question, but I believe that attention to this at the outset may avoid the opposite problem (for the philosophically inclined) which is to too hastily bring an ancient tradition to address contemporary ethical or other issues.

    I suppose this reflects my bias that classical philosophical traditions, esp. those which place particular value on ‘tradition,’ may be most productively compared with each other.

  6. For some years , an account of philosophy I have offered to my students is that it is the attempt to answer general, apparently important questions on which we’re so confused that we can’t reliably say how to pursue answers or how to certify people as experts. I don’t think we can reliably expect to be able to specify in advance how the study of certain other philosophers, near or far, might help us. Good philosophical work often involves thinking up radically new ways of conceiving things, ways not predictable before they were thought up. Professor A and Professor B in the same department can each very cogently explain why each other’s views are loco; or they can find each other almost beyond communication.

    My sense is that there are many different kinds of ways in which historical or “non-native” interpretive work can be genuinely philosophically enlightening. A list of ways could be helpful to someon who hasn’t thought of some of the ways on the list, but I wonder whether we could ever reasonably judge a list as roughly complete.

    Journal editors can make unreasonable demands, perhaps for competitive reasons. The effect is to limit what kind of intellectual work is done, before it is done. I’m inclined to think that the problem is that such limiting is done at all, not that it isn’t done well or enough.

    I suppose all that is why, above, I expected/sought a different point of interest in Alexus’ original post.

    Joshua raises the question how one goes about defending new or marginalized or forgotten ideas; and I think the only answer is, argue well (and write entertainingly, etc.). And I think the correlative point is that the rule for editors should be, look for good work, smart and interesting work, and don’t rely on facile distinctions.

    Importance is potential. What makes an idea important in philosophy? That it leads to other ideas. And since it is very well known among philosophers that historical work in philosophy is constantly stimulating new current work, ideas in a “purely historical” interpretation of philsophical material therefore can also lead to other ideas in current philosophy: if it is interesting work on interesting material.

  7. I think that some enterprising journal editor should take a peek at this thread and the source thread about journals themselves and consider commissioning a guest editor to collect some papers about methodology, aims and the history of Chinese philosophy. It is time.

    I’m glad Alexus is raising methodological issues as they bear on work in the history of Chinese philosophy. I firmly believe that philosophers don’t do enough metaphilosophy. Suppose for argument’s sake that my way of referring to the field—as ‘history of Chinese philosophy’ rather than ‘Chinese philosophy’—is appropriate. Then if we want to address Alexus’ issues properly we can avail ourselves of a considerable body of work on the aims and methods of history of philosophy produced by Western philosophers doing history of Western philosophy. (FYI in Metaphilosophy 37 (2006): 34-52 I summarize and analyze what I take to be the most important four or five accounts of the goals of doing the history of (Western) philosophy.)

    By way of reply to Bill H’s first post in the thread two types of project not worth doing but frequently done in history of Western philosophy are (1) the ‘how many angels did he say was dancing on that pin again?’ project, and (2) the ‘shootin’ fish in a barrel’ project.

    In his second post in this thread Bill concludes with a means/end justification of the ‘importance’ of a philosophical idea: an idea is important if it leads to other ideas. I’m skeptical that the ‘Important if Fecund’ model represents captures why pursuit of ideas through history of philosophy is valuable. (There’s fab work on the sociology of the transmission of ‘cultural variants’ or ideas through culture; I’m waiting for someone to turn this lens at Western philosophy itself.)

    Maybe I’m being conservative but I hold out the belief that historians of philosophy can defend their practice and method on the grounds that it is productive of truths that are important by virtue of showing us something about the human condition or the way the world is. Naïve?

  8. Hi Ryan,

    Not naïve but correct, I would think. Are you suggesting, more specifically, that editors of e.g. JCP should maybe judge “historical” papers not on grounds of potential contributions to “philosophy” but on grounds of a different kind of potential contribution, more kin to the kind of contribution to understanding of the human condition that we look for from e.g. histories of Peru?

    Unclear me! I didn’t mean an idea is important simply in proportion as it generates more ideas. I just meant that an idea’s importance in philosophy comes by way of connections to other ideas, and their connections to other ideas, etc. in long chains. Ideas about the human condition, for example, are important (if they’re not trivial or mere negations of silly stuff) because, more than ideas about angels on pins, they’re likely to lead to ideas about what to do, how to feel, etc., which will in turn lead to actions, feelings, etc. Philosophical ideas about scientific method are important because they lead to other ideas about that, hence to ideas in science and education, hence to better mousetraps and bombs and students. In practice the way we show that an idea in philosophy is important is that we show that it has the potential to generate other important ideas. Someone who offers a theory in semantics might defend its importance by showing that it can help us define ‘good’. But someone who offers a definition of ‘good’ might have to show that it has some implication for ethical theory in order to demonstrate its importance. Sometimes I wonder how circular current standards are.

    As you say, two common types of bad project are studies of overstudied fine points and refutations of unpersuasive blunders. I do think editors should weed such stuff out (in all academic fields), on general grounds of quality.

    I’ve looked quickly through your piece in Metaphilosophy, and I recommend it to all here. As a public service I’ll be so bold as to summarize the main views you discuss; I hope you’ll correct me if I get something too badly wrong.

    You’re talking not about the value of reading old philosophy; you’re talking about the value of writing and reading interpretations of old philosophy. Here I’ll give the main views you list, but in my own order:

    1) There’s not much value to it.
    2) It’s inspiring because it shows we can make rational progress. Recent work is better.
    3) Now and then we’ll want to call an idea e.g. “Lockean,” and we ought to get that right.
    4) Modern thought cannot be grasped without an understanding of its roots.
    5) Historical work helps us better mine the old thinkers for ideas (especially, toward defense of our own theories).
    6) Historical work helps us think up new ideas and questions.
    7) Historical work helps us evaluate the arguments of the old philosophers, toward finding out what’s true.

    You defend especially (7). I think (4)-(7), and other things like (5) and (6), are all important. (And something like the opposite of (2), Manyul!) I think reading historical interpretive work is help in reading the old books, and so is useful in all the ways reading the old books is, which often has little to do with whether they’re old.

    The Analects makes me think about the genre of the Pithy Saying, especially as compared to other genres or alleged genres such as the Philosophical Theory and the Kantian Maxim. I’d like to write about that some time. Maybe that falls under (6)? Or maybe it should fall under a separate account: academic work on philosophy from long ago or far away can be illuminating about the kinds of enterprise philosophy might encompass.

  9. What would Ryan’s list of reasons for interpretive work on philosophers dead and/or foreign) suggest about the kinds of projects that a journal should welcome or not?

    Account (1), that history-of-philoosphy is valueless, might suggest studies to test the account itself.

    Account (2), that history can convince us that there can be progress, might suggest projects in which philosophical methods currently overlooked or denigrated are shown to have got good results.

    Account (3), on professional accuracy, suggests projects aimed at overturning widespread errors of attribution. For example, I argue in one paper that some of the sayings most influential in Confucius-interpretation, quoted from “Confucius” by most leading scholars and often used to summarize Confucius, were not only not by Confucius (as is immediately apparent from the text–Joel, that’s an example of the immaturity of the field) but expressed views not shared by Confucius. That doesn’t matter if Confucius’ views aren’t themselves important; still this is a particular kind of project.

    Account (4) says knowing the early part of the conversation is important for understanding the rest of it.

    (4a) Insofar as the “philosophy itself” to which history’s relevance is at issue is largely Western, Chinese philosophy is not yet very important to it, though it is more important than often recognized. This account might suggest projects recalling that importance, such as Robert Louden’s article on Confucianism and the Western enlightenment in Van Norden, ed. “Confucius and the Analects.”

    (4b) Anyone who wants to understand a certain Chinese text will have a special reason to look at interpretive work on previous Chinese texts. The importance of this reason might be somewhat limited by the limits of Chinese concern with original meanings.

    (4c) Attention by the modern global philosophical community to Chinese texts might be a way of helping bring more of today’s Chinese thinkers into the global discussion, by making everybody’s roots more intelligible all around, etc. (See caveat to (4b).) This point suggests at least that Western interpretive studies should be written with a special kind of care: care to make the Westerner’s interpretive questions intelligible to someone not rooted in Western philosophy. The possibility of such clarity is under some challenge by the central idea of (4).

    Accounts (5) and (6) say that we can adopt ideas/questions from old/foreign work, and can be stimulated to think of new ideas/questions. (7) says the old/foreign work can have arguments that merit our respectful consideration in their own right. Interpretive work can help in all these respects. All three accounts support interpretive work aimed at finding out what the dead and/or foreign author really meant.

    (5) further suggests studies that show how old ideas can contribute to modern debates.

    I’m not sure what further sort of project (6) might suggest.

    (7) suggests attempts to engage directly with the old arguments–as though they are new, so to speak. One might be tempted to object that editors might not and perhaps should not see these papers as “historical” in the first place. But Joshua’s example suggests otherwise.

  10. Hey Bill, and Ryan; very interesting discussion here. But let me push the thought that any of these projects is worthy of journal attention, and as an editor/referee, I would take any of them seriously — “welcome them” — so long as they were done well. It’s always an issue of quality and originality for me, not so much of direction of argument. This sort of goes back to my thoughts about Alexus’s original post; really what I want to say about any piece is “Show me the argument!”. Even a piece about how early Confucianism resonates with 1960s drug culture (lots of emphasis on music, poetry, and paraphernalia of ritual?) is not ruled out in principle. The questions are whether the argument for that resonance is strong and whether the point of the comparison is illuminating in some philosophical and/or historical way that seems significant in some way or other related to philosophical understanding.

    • I completely agree, Manyul! Though I find catalogues of projects illuminating in some way or other related to philosophical understanding.

      Alexus, if in Western journals it’s harder to publish purely historical work on Chinese texts than on Western texts, I wonder whether that’s in some part because of insecurity about the magnitude of the intrinsic philosophical value of the Chinese texts. There might be a thought that Chinese philosophy has “something to prove,” as it were.

    • Manyul I agree with your practical pluralism. Some truly outstanding work in history of philosophy has been published in just about each of the categories. But if the criterion is “quality and originality” this would still eliminate a good deal of work in a number of history of philosophy journals. (I’m willing to consider that this may indict some of my own work…)

      I’m interested in calling into question the large extent to which issues arising in research in the history of philosophy have become divorced from efforts to understand what I was calling (but self-consciously not bothering to define) ‘the human condition’. This is of a piece with my increasingly interdisciplinary vision of philosophy across the humanities. We differ regarding our assessments of the relationship between this broad view of history of philosophy and what is typically represented in history of philosophy journals, including PEW, JCP, Dao, as well as JHP, HPQ and BJHP.

      Sean Greenberg, an outstanding Early Modern historian of philosophy, once used the term ‘the conservative extension’ to describe common dissertations in the field, a term which left an impression on me. My gloss: PhD student follows roughly in the footsteps of his advisor; uses a similar method; presupposes the importance of certain historiographic questions and the unimportance of others; and does research that moves select, often rarified, debates in a narrow bandwidth of secondary literature along a few paces per decade.

      Bill that is in effect also an answer to your question “Are you suggesting, more specifically, that editors of e.g. JCP should maybe judge “historical” papers not on grounds of potential contributions to “philosophy” but on grounds of a different kind of potential contribution, more kin to the kind of contribution to understanding of the human condition that we look for from e.g. histories of Peru?”

  11. Hi BIll-

    I agree, I suspect that’s what’s going on. It’s always seemed to me that the field of Chinese philosophy has a somewhat “ghetto” mentality, and has that same chip on the shoulder that people in historically oppressed racial groups (like my own) have, concerning their place in the wider culture. It’s an obsession with “proving ourselves” in the eyes of the wider community. We spend a great deal of time arguing that “Chinese Philosophy is really philosophy, and it’s really important!” This is directed generally at people outside of the Chinese philosophy fold (we don’t have to convince *ourselves* that the stuff is important and interesting, after all).

    One of the things that disturbs me is that the project of making Chinese philosophy interesting to people who don’t do History of Chinese Philosophy can easily become the project of turning Chinese philosophers into the western philosophers who others do find interesting. If one is interested in, say, J.S. Mill but not in Mozi, one way of trying to show this person the importance of Mozi is to simply present him as a kind of Proto-Mill. But this project seems to me problematic for a number of reasons:

    1) If Mozi, for example, is just a kind of Proto-Mill, doesn’t this give us even *more* reason not to care about him? Why not just read Mill?
    2) It doesn’t allow us to understand the Chinese philosophers on their own terms. What *they* found interesting and plausible, as Steve suggests in a comment above, could have been (indeed probably was) very different from what *we* (as members of our distinct “Anglo-American” philosophical tradition) find interesting and plausible. So to attempt to make the early Chinese philosophers palatable to a contemporary western philosophical audience in this way just misses, I think, a great deal of what these philosophers were attempting to do.
    3) It’s anathema to the historian. As historian, even though I realize it’s impossible to ever give a completely “pure” interpretation of ancient Chinese philosophers (I offer interpretations in English, for example, not classical Chinese-and even if I did use classical Chinese, anything I write as interpretation goes beyond what the philosophers in question actually said), I strive to remain as faithful to *their* conception of what they were doing as I can within the language and the conceptual scheme I am operating within. It seems to me that I can remain more faithful to Mozi’s conception of what he was doing, for example, without even using Mill at all, let alone reading him as doing roughly what Mill was trying to do. My language and conceptual scheme may force me to see 利 in a certain way, but it doesn’t force me to see Mill’s concepts as operative in Mozi’s thought. Thus it doesn’t seem historically respectable to use Mill in this way in interpretation of Mozi (of course this is just a pet example).

    As I said in the original post, though–this is in some ways just an objection based on my conception of the goals of a particular project. TWhat bothers me about the project I mention here, though, is that it seems to me that any philosophical work taking itself to engage with Mozi or any other historical philosopher should be at least in part historically focused (unless it’s just a “inspired by Mozi” kind of deal), and insofar as a project is historically focused, the above 3 points will be difficulties for a person who attempts to read the Mozi (or any other ancient text) as addressing contemporary concerns and/or employing the concepts of contemporary (or better understood) philosophers.

  12. Amen, Alexus – though one helpful thing about contemporary concerns is that some of them are very general, e.g. How to Live. Mozi is relevant to that, and he might also be presented as offering a Further Variety of Utilitarianism deserving of consideration, without identifying him closely with any more particular modern idea or old Westerner.

    Along similar lines, Joshua, I have a question about your Yangist project. If I follow you, there’s a Yangist idea or two that you want to defend, and since the main challenges so far presented against it are ancient Chinese challenges, you want to address those. And the worry is that the project will seem simply antiquarian if that’s as far as it goes. My question is, can that really be as far as it goes? I mean, suppose you were to say you’d like to defend the idea that P, which is (I suppose) an answer to some still-current question such as “How should one live?”. If there are no widely accepted modern views that cut directly against P, then you might say a word or two for it and then defend it against some extant challenges, crediting P and the challenges to certain ancient figures as you go, perhaps with interpretive asides or footnotes. If the arguments are good, would an editor reject it on the grounds that it’s history? If on the other hand there are widely accepted modern views that directly conflict with P, then there are in effect modern attacks on P, and these might be philosophically more urgent than the ancient challenges, requiring to be addressed first in any serious defense of P for a modern audience. An editor wouldn’t reject this on grounds of its being historical, right? An editor might reject either project on the grounds that P isn’t plausible enough, but that issue would come down to the quality of the arguments and their clarity, yes?

  13. If Kant were here he might want to draw our attention to the following thought in the Prolegomena. I hope readers of this thread will find it interesting; I think it is the motivation for some of the disenchantment with ostrich-style history of philosophy; and I think that it might address in its own way Bill’s worry about ‘simply antiquarian’ projects in history of phil.

    “There are scholars for whom the history of philosophy (ancient as well as modern) is itself their philosophy; the present prolegomena have not been written for them. They must wait until those who endeavor to draw from the wellsprings of reason itself have finished their business, and then it will be their turn to bring news of these events to the world. Failing that, in their opinion nothing can be said that has not already been said before. . . .” (Kant, Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics (1997, 5))

    BTW I see no reason why the project on Mozi outlined by Alexus or the project on the Yangists outlined by Joshua would of any necessity succumb to Kant’s charge. Instead I find this quote forces me to return my vision to properly philosophical questions once in awhile (like ‘How have our natures as homo sapiens biased us toward favoring kin at the expense of non-kin? What moral implications does this bias have?’) even as I work on identifying answers to authorial questions (‘Did Confucius really mean to say that it is morally obligatory to favor kin at the expense of non-kin in Analects *.*?’)

  14. Ryan, I’ve been unclear again: when I wrote “the worry is that the project will seem simply antiquarian,” I meant one could worry that the project would seem to editors simply antiquarian and therefore would not see print. My view (given unclearly at the end of #6) is that prima facie simply antiquarian work on old philosophy, if it’s good work, is as likely to be “philosophically important” as stuff that directly addresses currently debated questions.

    And Ryan, I’ve been unclear again again, because I don’t understand your answer to me at the end of your contribution under #10. (Is it Yes or No?) Here’s why I asked the question. I have been assuming that Alexus’ original post was not asking that we discuss general standards of quality (don’t be trivial or unoriginal, don’t refute the ridiculous), but rather meant to raise what I awkwardly want to call more qualitative issues, such as: (a) should PEW reject a paper on the grounds that is “purely historical” in the sense that its official thesis is simply of the form “Smith meant P,” and (b) in what kinds of way (not such kinds as “well” or “poorly”) can a project straddle the distinction between “purely historical” work in that sense and “purely philosophical” papers that simply argue, “You should believe philosophical proposition P because XYZ” and don’t name anybody at all; and (c) which of these should the journals welcome? A paper that presents and evaluates Smith’s argument for P, toward establishing the thesis that P is true or plausible or inadequately supported, would by this standard not be purely historical work. Similarly, a paper that argues for two main theses, “Smith thought P” and “P has important philosophical implications Q,” would not qualify as “purely historical” work. When you said historical work itself is illuminating about the human condition, I wasn’t sure whether you meant (i) “because we’ll go on to have non-historical thoughts from it in our heads in the familiar ways” or meant (ii) something more radical, something more separate about history. That is, studying old books qua history, or interpretively, is important in some special way, distinct from the kind of importance reading the old books would have if we just read them “as contemporary” and understood them right off. I agree more vehemently with (i) than (ii), but also took it to be pretty uncontroversial, at least among us, which is why I thought you just might mean (ii), which I would then find very interesting.

    My impression is that we’re all agreed that the relation between studying the dead/foreign and general understanding is rich and varied, and that editors of JCP etc. ought to worry mostly about excellence rather than about any history/philosophy distinction.

    My impression was also that Alexus wanted to identify kinds of project and agenda (not such kinds as trivial, unoriginal, etc.) that the community of scholars ought not to welcome (see the OP’s penultimate paragraph). I’m not especially sympathetic with that kind of community standard (#6), but I’d be interested to hear what general projects might seem worth denigrating (#2).

  15. Hey Bill,

    Sorry for the delay to my response. I appreciate your sustained reflection about this with me.

    I think that submissions to journals ought to be judged first and foremost by the standards indicated by the editors, if any. (I don’t remember if editors have ever explicitly given me a set of guidelines with which to referee a paper though.) For history of philosophy journals referees in my opinion ought to inform their judgments about papers on grounds that include what we were calling ‘a different kind of potential contribution’. The standard contribution would take the form of a textual argument that seeks to justify an authorial attribution of the form ‘By saying ABC Confucius (or The Analects) means XYZ.’

    As noted, the problem here is that such standard inquiries may not result in any substantive philosophical knowledge. But such papers have potential to be of enduring value when (i) XYZ is something of long-term interest to the community and (ii) the arguments used by the historical figure are not absurd or patently unsound. BTW I’m not arguing that certain projects in history of philosophy are not worth doing or should be shunned by the community. Clearly some projects that do not have enduring value are necessary to acquire tenure for example. Others are just really fun to do.

    The method in history of philosophy I was attempting to advocate included a more unusual component, though, and that’s what you were asking about. Of what unique value is the history of philosophy? If we want to know whether XYZ is true then the place to look is not going to be The Analects or The Phaedo. Bill, you wrote that you thought I was saying that “studying old books qua history, or interpretively, is important in some special way, distinct from the kind of importance reading the old books would have if we just read them “as contemporary”.” You’re right that this is what I was suggesting. To spell out this ‘special way’, if we want to understand where ideas have come from and how they have been influential in history and culture, then we must turn to the historian of philosophy. This in my opinion is what makes our work unique and important in a way not reducible to the importance of contemporary analytic philosophy.


  16. Ryan, you make a good point! Thanks! Sorry I was so slow to pick it up. Based on the OP, I think Alexus’ follow-up question would then be, “How should our very few anglophone journals of Chinese philosophy take this into account in fixing their scope? What special kind(s) of paper (if any) should editors (and tenure review committees) therefore welcome (beyond: “C thought X” and “C thought X, thereby contributing to current philosophical debate D”), and how should refereeing standards be adjusted for the different kind(s) of paper?

    But that’s entirely too hairy a question to ask this far down on an old string.

    To your conjunction of (i) and (ii) I’d disjoin a (iii): I think the question whether Confucius or the Analects (or Youzi–An. 1.2, 1.12, 1.13, 12.9–who I think never studied with Confucius but profoundly influenced the movement) meant XZY can have another basis of value, as a piece in a grand puzzle whose other pieces are likely to be valuable.

    Which, I think, is a main reason why such projects are fun.

    Ancient Greece is a longstanding community puzzle. The social aspect of the puzzle adds to the fun and, as you suggest, tempts excess. But these days there are so many channels. Hmm.

    Anyway thanks!

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