Warp, Weft, and Way

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

Chinese Philosophy in the New York Times

Thanks to Peimin Ni, Chinese philosophy has made its first appearance in the New York Times’ philosophy forum, “The Stone.” Here is the link, but feel free to respond to the article on this blog.

December 11th, 2010 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学 | 9 comments

9 Responses to Chinese Philosophy in the New York Times

  1. Manyul Im says:

    Thanks for the link, Justin. I wasn’t sure what to expect, given the title of the piece. It’s interesting to use gongfu — even more to use ‘kung fu’ given the likely associations that has for most NYT readers — to schematize Chinese philosophy as having a primarily practical concern. I might have chosen ‘the Way’ for the purpose, since that’s more prevalent, to say the least, in the tradition.

    On a substantive level, although I appreciate Peimin’s way of trying to delineate Chinese philosophy by contrast to typical, though not universal, Western philosophical concerns, I don’t know how helpful this piece is for inviting the serious pursuit of more broadly philosophical questions within the Chinese philosophical context — philosophical concerns that in some ways transcend traditions.

    Take Peimin’s more or less summative statement: “the predominant orientation of traditional Chinese philosophy is the concern about how to live one’s life, rather than finding out the truth about reality.” I’m not sure that, conceived this way, the orientation is very distinct. This clearly invites the further question: Why isn’t “how to live one’s life” one of the questions for “finding out the truth about reality”? Western philosophy, conceived as truth-oriented, might simply subsume the concerns that are supposed to be special about the Chinese tradition. There’s nothing wrong with that — personally, I think philosophy as a general orientation is truth-oriented and what’s interesting about Chinese philosophy are the alternative possibilities that are presented in it about the truth of how it is best to live (at different levels of specificity).

    A more distinguishing description of Chinese philosophy might be that it eschews argument or discussion about the truth of claims about how one ought to live — I think Peimin comes close to this description in places. That has its drawbacks, however — the biggest is that it seems to make the tradition much less reflective than the philosophically inclined might find interesting. A modification to avoid this drawback might be to say that Chinese philosophy is reflective about how to live but not in terms of the truth of claims, instead it is reflective about… and then I’m not sure how else to think about reflection. Perhaps some form of justification that does not reduce to questions about truth? Again, I’m not sure what this amounts to, though I’m open to suggestions.

    I don’t think my views here turn on a narrowly proprietary conception of ‘philosophy’ — it seems like questions of justification and reflection form a very minimal threshold for philosophical inquiry.

    Anyway, these are some thoughts I had initially as I read Peimin’s piece.

    • Peimin Ni says:

      Thanks, Manyul, for your comments on my article. Let me also take this opportunity to thank you, Justin, and Steve, for putting up this platform for exchange ideas and resources.

      The reason that I did not use “the Way” to characterize Chinese philosophy is that the word, at least for the general public we are facing today, carries too much connotation with a path that one travels on, and is consequently inadequate for expressing the emphasis on cultivation without additional articulation. As for the spelling of “kung fu” instead of “gongfu,” that was the choice of the editor of NYT, which I did not feel very comfortable, but nevertheless accepted.

      I feel that the best way to invite serious interest in Chinese philosophy is to transcend traditions through dialogue between, rather than going beyond, traditions. The reason why “how to live one’s life” is not one of the questions for “finding out the truth about reality” is because it cannot be reduced to knowing, not even in the sense of “knowing how,” much less in the sense of getting propositional true beliefs about “what.” The dimension of cultivation is best captured, in my opinion, by the word gongfu, as it entails the requirement of the transformation of the person and the embodiment of what is learned. Furthermore, it would allow us to have the vision that many statements in traditional Chinese philosophy should be (or can be) taken as instructions or even performative use of words – they are not telling us what is true, but (often subtly) speech actions.

      Your question about what kind of “reflection” (if not clear definition and linear argumentation) is unique to traditional Chinese philosophy is an important and difficult one. I have been thinking about it myself. My tentative answer is, to state it briefly, that (1) this kind of reflection is typically in the form of bringing oneself to awareness or of getting insights, closer to forming a disposition than coming to a conclusion through linear thinking, and (2) the reflection is characteristically focused on how to become a better person and live a better life. But again, this is just a tentative answer, and I would very much like to hear your opinions about it.

  2. Steve Angle says:

    Manyul and Peimin talk a bit about the kind of “reflection” that might be distinctive of Chinese philosophy. I think it might be useful to provisionally (only provisionally; see below) distinguish between straight-forwardly thinking about / reflecting on one’s past behavior or current situation, on the one hand, and something that looks more like philosophical reflection: reflecting on how to interpret a classic text, how to phrase one’s commentary on a key passage, how to respond to a challeging letter from an interlocutor, how to respond to a student’s question, etc., on the other hand. We can see the fruits of the latter kind of reflection in the various genres of writing associated with Neo-Confucians. We can also see, in these different writings, some of the hallmarks of philosophical writing as it has been practiced in the West: terminological/conceptual clarification and/or innovation, including attention to consistency with claims or definitions made elsewhere; the spelling out of various inferential connections; and sometimes explicit arguments.

    I think that given the existence of this latter kind of reflection, we should be careful about not drawing the boundary between Western and Chinese philosophical practice too firmly. Two further points. First, I suspect that someone like Zhu Xi would resist the idea that there are two kinds of reflection. What he calls “greater learning” is a practice (his term is gongfu) aimed ultimately at sagehood that precisely includes the more abstract kind of reflection. Similarly, he emphasizes that when reading the classics, one aims at making it relevant to oneself. Second, we should keep in mind the arguments of Hadot that even the verbal, argumentative practice of the Greeks and Romans can be seen as a kind of spiritual exercise. So “aiming at truth” can itself be a kind of gongfu.

  3. Bill Haines says:

    Hi Peimin!

    I am interested in how the “gongfu” picture of the difference between early Chinese and recent Western philosophy relates to questions about whether, as compared to Chinese thought, Western thought is excessively or simple-mindedly individualistic.

    Comparisons of early Chinese with recent Western philosophy always make me wonder whether the proper comparison is simply between early and recent philosophy, no matter where. But I think your comparison is definitely not just between old and new. For you say in your NYT piece that “the lack of clear definitions of key terms and the absence of linear arguments … [is] a requirement of the kung fu orientation.” Even very early Western philosophy emphasizes arguments and definitions, as at least part of what it does.

    As you point out, verbally articulate thinking about an activity can interfere with our ability to perform it. So certain aspects of, or stages in, the proper pursuit of e.g. painting well or swimming well do not involve the articulate pursuit or recall of truths. Still, there is quite an industry of instructional videos on these arts, full of truth-claims.

    I agree with you that much of wisdom and living well takes the form of “knowing how” that cannot be put into words, or not easily; and that some of living well take the form of abilities that largely do not even consist of “knowing how,” such as the ability to lift a heavy weight and more interesting abilities. But is it possible to be seriously, genuinely, attempting to pursue wisdom and excellent living, without being concerned with arguments and clear terms?

    For individuals, I think it is obviously possible.

    For a literate tradition, I am not so sure it is possible, except very early, when a concern for good thinking might not yet have led to the discovery of the genres “arguments” and “clear definitions,” or the discovery of the wide range of reasonable disagreement. I think a genuine concern for wisdom and living well inevitably leads to a concern with arguments and large truths, once enough people are involved in the project to think of such things.

    We might distinguish among kinds of project a literate tradition might emphasize. One project is to develop or at least transmit a body of advice and techniques for any person seeking to pursue wisdom and excellent living. Another project is the collaborative pursuit of wisdom and living well, so that my activity is a contribution to our pursuit of our wisdom and our living-well, by way of some division of deliberative and associated intellectual labor. Division of labor allows for specialization, and the current activity called “philosophy” in the West is understood to be a part, not the whole, of the intellectual and deliberative labor involved in pursuing wisdom and good living; and the intellectual and deliberative labor is of course understood to be only a part of the whole pursuit (though the occasional person might get these points wrong). A third kind of project is the collective pursuit of the community’s own living-well, or political excellence.

    Western approaches to philosophy may reflect the fact that Western philosophy began in societies organized in significant part for collective deliberation. For example, Aristotle’s ethics was based on a biological view he accepted even though it was problematic for his metaphysics: the view that human individuals are not quite self-contained entities (not “substances”); for man is a social animal. While Aristotle’s thought left an ambiguous place for the occasional great philosopher, the main conception of excellent human activity operative in his ethics is, I think, active participation in the practical life of the community. And he regarded philosophical inquiry as a collective activity. His method relies heavily on respect for “the opinions of the many and the wise,” and his ethical writings are peppered with references to his hope that others will repair the gaps in his work. Apparently much of his scientific and political research was carried out by teams under his direction.

    It seems to me that large-scale collaboration on wisdom and good living, especially among people who may have very different ideas and ways, would seem to require certain special kinds of individual, organizational, and collective gongfu, as human life requires blood and air.

    For example, openness to correction and improvement requires practices of respect for differences. One such practice is the legal protection of individual liberties and other rights. Without this, Mill argued, liberty is always far less secure, and far less, so that people’s input is stomped on rather than learned from. More generally it is important to have intellectual, political, and commercial institutions that support transparency and checking; and to be up-front about any limitations of the authority with which one is offering one’s truth-claims, advice, or instructions, thus helping the audience judge one’s relevant authority.

    Certain special kinds of discipline in the use of language are crucial kinds of gongfu or li for participating in collaborative inquiry and deliberation: in brief they are perhaps the kinds of discipline that undergraduate courses in Western philosophy tend to emphasize: including clarity (e.g. about whether and when the kind of speech-act or writing-act that is being engaged in is a truth-claim), respect in discussion, and skill in “linear argument.”

    These kinds of gongfu, these essential parts of the genuine, serious, non-solitary pursuit of living well, these tools of respect for people, do indeed seem underemphasized in the Chinese philosophical tradition.


    If I understand the second paragraph of your NYT essay, by “gongfu” you mean “practiced skill,” and more specifically the practiced skill of living well. I am not sure how to reconcile this with your statement that “the concept of kung fu (or gongfu) is known to many in the West only through martial arts fighting films.” Of course the concept of practiced skill in living well is familiar in the West among philosophers and non-philosophers (and not at all, I think, associated with martial arts movies). So I wonder whether I have misunderstood what you mean by “gongfu.”

    Do you have in mind something more particular that one associates with martial arts films? In “Crouching Tiger” there is a secret instructional pamphlet. In “Kung Fu Panda” the dragon scroll secretly contains only oneself. Common to many martial arts films is a vision of the relevant gongfu as a rare and secret commodity, passed from one special person to another by years of grueling drill that begin by establishing the absolute authority of the master over the pupil through a very long preliminary regimen of humiliation. In all three cases, collaboration with others seems to play no role.

    In “Blood Sport” (a film celebrating the achievements of Frank Dux, who seems in actuality to have been a complete charlatan) the hero wins his fight because when his eyes are disabled, he remembers that his master has drilled into him another kind of sensibility – sharpened hearing, perhaps – that can alert him to his opponents’s moves.

    Some of the most important implications of how we live may not be easy for us to sense nonverbally when we are living that way. For example, it is often thought that the main implications of how we live are in an afterlife somewhere else. Individually and collectively we may have a tremendous impact on the next century’s climate, or on people overseas, for example by voting for charismatic leaders. It seems to me that abstract ideas can themselves expand our sensibility, and I wonder whether you agree.

    I wonder what sort of collaboration on how to live well, and what sort of effort toward good political organization, you think can be encompassed within the “gongfu” approach as you understand it; that is, an approach that requires a lack of emphasis on argument, clear terms, or clarity about the difference between truth and useful fiction.

  4. Peimin Ni says:


    Thank you for your very thoughtful comments! Sorry for taking so long for me to respond – busy with final exams and writing a response for the NYT readers in general (which just appeared online at http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/21/philosophers-for-kung-fu-a-response/)

    Due to the limitation of space and considering that the forum was for general readers, I could not fully unpack lots of issues involved, even in my response essay, not to mention that I don’t really think I am able to. I sincerely hope that people like you and others in our field of study can work together to explore them in great detail.

    Now let me share with you my thoughts about the main questions you raised in your comments, hopefully to generate more discussions.

    By “the lack of clear definitions of key terms and the absence of linear arguments …[is] a requirement of the kung fu orientation,” I was not downplaying the significance of clarity and linear arguments, but rather that that they have limitations. First of all, one can certainly consider clarity in definition and linear reasoning a kung fu, but this would be the lower kind, somewhat like the role of formal logic in the Hegelian dialectical system. Once everything is understood distinctly in terms of their essence, as required by the Cartesian “clarity and distinctness,” Zeno’s paradoxes, Cartesian dualism, and the lack of “the cement of the universe” in Hume’s philosophy are all inevitable. In an extreme case, even “my running” and “my running at 10 miles per hour” must be considered two different events (which is reflected well in Jaegwon Kim and Alvin Goldman’s theory of event). Yes, it is logically very clear to make these differentiations, but the connection between everything is lost, and changes will ultimately be unintelligible! Secondly, once the aim of the pursuit of obtaining the Truth about reality eclipses all other aims, then comes the problem of taking the menu as food – misunderstandings of Chinese philosophy as less valuable and rigorous, etc. Furthermore, even though linear thinking and clear definition is useful to a certain degree, eventually one has to “forget” them in praxis, meaning that the knowledge has to be embodied and become one’s dispositions, as the Daoist concept of wu wei sums it up so well.

    As for whether “deliberative inquiry” (as you call it) is more communal and the instructional tradition is more individualistic, I think one can argue exactly the opposite way. Aristotle’s view that contemplation is the most “self-sufficient” activity and Kant’s famous article on “What is Enlightenment” (which practically denies the value of tradition) both seem to entail that deliberative inquiry does not essentially depend on community (though it can benefit from communal collaboration), whereas instructional wisdom has to be accumulated from generations of practical wisdom (though eventually, one has to absorb it through embodiment, i.e. turning it into abilities and dispositions).

  5. Bill Haines says:

    Thank you for your reply, Peimin: I know how difficult it is to squeeze anything in at this time of year. Though I cannot approach the breadth of your knowledge, I will try to respond. As I too am pressed for time at the moment, here I shall only reply directly to your reply. I hope in a few days to clarify my argument and present some new ones. I apologize for this procedure.

    Now let me share with you my thoughts about the main questions you raised

    I think you do not address any of the points or questions I meant to raise! Obviously I was very unclear!

    I’ll address the two parts of your reply in order.


    By “the lack of clear definitions of key terms and the absence of linear arguments …[is] a requirement of the kung fu orientation,” I was not downplaying the significance of clarity and linear arguments, but rather that that they have limitations.

    I took that statement to mean simply that the lack of clear definitions of key terms and the absence of linear arguments is a requirement of the kung fu orientation. You had said that these absences are a feature of classic Chinese texts. Your claim that the gongfu orientation requires these absences was the key point in your argument that those absences reflect a strength of the Chinese tradition. Have I misunderstood? (In response I tried to offer reasons to think such absences from a tradition or from its main texts are not a requirement of the kung fu orientation, but amount to a grave weakness, and are a sign of other grave weakness. I meant to suggest that they are a sign of grave weakness in the tradition’s kung fu project.)

    After the above statement, you argue (in ways I strongly disagree with) that
    (1) clear definitions and linear arguments do not have limitless value,
    (2) the pursuit of truth should not be allowed to eclipse all other aims, and
    (3) we shouldn’t always have our minds on clear definitions of terms and linear arguments.
    I am not sure what I or others could have said to suggest that we needed correcting on any of these points.


    The rest of your reply argues for the claim that deliberative inquiry is more individualistic than the instructional tradition.

    As for whether “deliberative inquiry” (as you call it) is more communal and the instructional tradition is more individualistic, I think one can argue exactly the opposite way.

    I’m not sure what it is that I am supposed to have called “deliberative inquiry.” I didn’t use the phrase. I’m happy to use it here (assuming that it means inquiry as part of deliberation, rather than merely slow and careful inquiry).

    I didn’t mean to propose that deliberative inquiry is more communal, less individualistic, than the instructional tradition. The comparison doesn’t make much sense to me, for obviously deliberative inquiry can be purely individual or deeply communal. But I would like address here your argument for the opposite judgment of comparative degree: that deliberative inquiry is more individualistic than the instructional tradition.

    You argue by comparing a successful or excellent instructional tradition to some possible deliberative inquiry. That is: you propose that (a) deliberative inquiry can occur without collaboration, and (b) a wise instructional tradition depends on community in the sense that it takes generations to develop. (I think that’s a very minimal sense.) Obviously, (a) and (b) together have no implications about the comparison you promised to argue for.

    You don’t argue for (b); but you do argue for (a), as follows:

    Aristotle’s view that contemplation is the most “self-sufficient” activity and Kant’s famous article on “What is Enlightenment” (which practically denies the value of tradition) both seem to entail that deliberative inquiry does not essentially depend on community (though it can benefit from communal collaboration),

    I think it’s uncontroversial that, say, Robinson Crusoe can investigate whether a certain fruit is poisonous, toward deciding whether to eat it; in that sense it is uncontroversial that deliberative inquiry does not essentially depend on community. (Some Western philosophers have argued that thought essentially depends on language and that language essentially depends on community. I didn’t mean to be raising any such subtle issues.)

    The premise of your argument is the philosophical authority of Aristotle and Kant. But surely you reject that premise? I was not appealing to their authority, so I think you are not arguing dialectically in that way. I do not understand your purpose in this argument.

    In my view, Kant’s essay on Enlightenment is not concerned with the uncontroversial point that deliberative inquiry does not essentially depend on community. Rather I think he is concerned with a kind of “cowardice” or “immaturity” that consists in thinking very little, and instead mainly just adopting one’s views from others. He says it is caused mainly by a mistake in community organization: specifically, by over-authoritarian government; and that authoritarian government thus stands in the way of various kinds of collective progress in understanding that comes when we share our ideas with others. (In that essay Kant speaks of a “public” becoming enlightened, and of an “age” increasing “its” knowledge and enlightenment; and he says the “essential destiny” of human nature is such collective progress. I see nothing in the essay that “practically denies the value of tradition,” unless by “tradition” you just mean blind followership.)

    In praising collaboration on deliberation and inquiry, of course I was not saying that individuals should not think much.

    Aristotle notoriously seems to contradict himself about contemplation versus the political life, for humans, and the extent to which self-sufficient contemplation is even possible for human beings; and scholars disagree about how to resolve the contradictions. (His term “self-sufficient,” applied to activity, does not in general imply being doable by an individual alone. “What we count as self-sufficient is not what suffices for a solitary person by himself, living an isolated life, but what suffices also for parents, children, wife, and in general, for friends and fellow-citizens, since a human being is naturally a political [animal]” – EN i.7.§40, Irwin’s translation.)

    What the scholars do tend to agree on, I think, is that the “contemplation” Aristotle is talking about is not a kind of deliberation, and not a kind of inquiry.

    Aristotle does comment on deliberative inquiry. Regarding deliberative inquiry toward state decisions, he says, for example,

    “The view that the multitude rather than the few best people should be in authority would seem to be held, and while it involves a problem, it perhaps also involves some truth. For the many, who are not as individuals excellent men, nevertheless can, when they have come together, be better than the few best people, not individually but collectively, just as feasts to which many contribute are better than feasts provided at one person’s expense. For being many, each of them can have some part of virtue and practical wisdom, and when they come together, the multitude is just like a single human being, with many feet, hands, and senses, and so too for their character traits and wisdom. That is why the many are better judges of works of music and and of the poets. For one of them judges one part, and another another, and all of them the whole thing.” (Pol. III.11)

  6. Bill Haines says:


    Although I promised to paraphrase my original arguments at clear length, I’ll paraphrase them only briefly, in one crabbed paragraph.

    It is possible that an individual who is sincerely and intelligently pursuing a certain end nevertheless fails to take the obvious means to that end; for we individuals blunder a lot even when we are being intelligent. But that excuse is harder to make in defense of a long literate tradition. Collaboration in thinking is so obviously valuable for living well, individually and collectively, and clear definition and linear argument are so obviously crucial to effective collaboration in thinking, that if a long literate cultural tradition seriously neglects such skills, then it is hard for me to understand how that tradition, or any developed art of living that is central to that tradition, can fairly be said to be much concerned with living well, individually or collectively (or with collaborating in thinking, or with thinking well). And if the art is not animated by concern for those ends, that is a reason to doubt the art’s value toward those ends.

    I would now like to qualify that point by a couple of distinctions. First, I would distinguish between (1) aiming at living excellently, and (2) aiming as well as one can under limiting circumstances (e.g. the lack of certain intellectual tools) at living as well as one can under limiting circumstances (e.g. oppression). Second, I would distinguish between (A) each person’s aiming at the best way of living available to her under current general circumstances, and (B) people’s aiming together at the best way of living available to them, a project that might involve working together to reform the circumstances. I see no reason why it is not possible, in a long literate tradition that lacks key tools of collaborative thinking, to have a well-developed art of living that in sense (2)(A) genuinely does aim at living well: what we might call a 精神文明.


    I heard a person tell this story of herself, phoning in to NPR; but I guess it is an urban myth: Her daughter asked her why she always cut the ends off a pot roast before cooking it. She said she didn’t know the point of it; she did it because that’s what her mother did. She phoned her mother, who said the same thing and then phoned her mother, who gave the reason: her pan was too small.

    You write in comment #4 above,
    As for … the instructional tradition, … instructional wisdom has to be accumulated from generations of practical wisdom (though eventually, one has to absorb it through embodiment, i.e. turning it into abilities and dispositions).

    By “the instructional tradition” I think you mean a project I distinguished from more collaborative projects in comment #3 above. I said, “One project [a tradition might have] is to develop or at least transmit a body of advice and techniques for any person seeking to pursue [her own] wisdom and excellent living.”

    You point out that in an instructional tradition, wisdom takes generations to develop; and I think your reference to eventual embodiment alludes to the role of texts. What is needed beyond sheer time, I suppose, is modes of transmission (texts and/or personal training and emulation), and mechanisms for checking and improving the advice and techniques, or gongfu ways. For example, there might be some sorting mechanism whereby good advice and ways are more likely to be transmitted than the bad are; and there might be some mechanism whereby new advice and ways are added to the mix, to be sorted. Revision of the art seems especially important insofar as our basic circumstances differ from those of previous generations – a kind of change that promises to accelerate indefinitely.

    I wonder what you think can be the main effective mechanisms of transmission and improvement in a tradtion that does not emphasize clear terms and arguments, or a sharp distinction between truth and fiction.

    For the arts of fighting, adequate mechanisms are fairly natural and easy to specify. (1) An untrained person can easily distinguish which people have the better techniques; (2) victory and defeat inherently tend to preserve the better and weed out the worse techniques; and (3) the preferability of victory to defeat is sufficiently obvious and strong to serve as an incentive for the development of new techniques, so long as the project of fighting well does not get mixed up with other projects.

    For the arts of living well, it seems to me there are certain important mistakes that we might expect to become solidly entrenched in the absence of an emphasis on clear terms and arguments, and other such devices for collaborative intelligence. We might expect an overemphasis on avoiding various kinds of unpleasantness that come in the short term to oneself, to one’s closest associates, and to those who hold power. For example, a tradition without definitions and arguments might tend to emphasize meditative escapism, authoritarian organization, and neglect of outsiders or the weak, such as the poor, handicapped, or female.


    It seems to me that the development of a wise body of advice and techniques for living well must benefit greatly from direct inquiry into such questions as: What is it to live well (or in other words, what is goodness)? What are our circumstances? What causes what, in our circumstances and in the circumstances we may expect in the next generation? — and it seems to me that such inquiry is far better prosecuted if it is collaborative, involving substantial focus on clear concepts and “linear arguments.” Further, offhand one might think that advice and techniques can be more easily and widely transmitted if some care has been giving to ensuring that the terms in which they are recorded are clear, and the reasons by which they are advertised are clear and cogent. These points seem to me to amount to a reason to think that other things equal, the gongfu of a long tradition that emphasizes clear terms and arguments will be far superior to the gongfu of a similarly long tradition that does not.

    Your second essay seems to agree. But in your first piece you argue as follows:
    the lack of clear definitions of key terms and the absence of linear arguments in classic Chinese texts … is not a weakness, but rather a requirement of the kung fu orientation — not unlike the way that learning how to swim requires one to focus on practice and not on conceptual understanding. Only by going beyond conceptual descriptions of reality can one open up to the intelligence that is best exemplified through arts like dancing and performing.

    In what way might a tradition’s concern for clear definitions and direct arguments tend to interfere with its orientation toward the art of living?

    Clearly a person is not well-oriented toward swimming if she articulates a reason before every move. Arguments are distracting.

    But similarly, any lengthy set of words would be distracting (unless chanted without understanding, for rhythm). The distracting quality of arguments in the water doesn’t suggest that instructional manuals should omit arguments, or that our personal approaches to swimming should omit arguments. For texts are not acts of attempting to swim, and one can do one’s articulate thinking between swims.

    Living differs from swimming in precisely that respect: reading or writing a text is indeed an act of living, and there are no periods for dry reasoning between bouts of living.

    But similarly, living differs from swimming in that it is not prima facie true that articulate reasoning during some of one’s living is a debilitating distraction from living well in general. Similarly, it is not prima facie true that brushing one’s teeth or sleeping is an obstacle to living well, though they are obstacles to swimming well and to many other activities important for good living.

    (Spending all of one’s time or all of one’s inquiry time on clear definitions and linear arguments would of course be a debilitating distraction from living well or inquiring well, as you emphasize in comment #4 above. Indeed there are few things we can or should do all the time. Similarly, if we spent all our time breathing, we would never learn to swim well. But it does not follow that a good swimming regimen benefits from the absence of breathing.)

    As you say, we can see by thinking about learning to swim or to play the clarinet that there are parts of intelligence or cognition that are not carried in the vehicles of articulate argument or any sort of linguistic vehicle that requires the kind of clarity that definitions aim to generate, but that are probably very important to living well. For a simple example, there is the recognition of faces.

    Now, philosophy that is concerned about clear definitions and arguments might risk overlooking this sort of part of intelligence or cognition, and hence risk failing to develop it well, or even interfering with its proper development. That risk might be the problem analogous to reasoning while swimming.

    That point suggests several questions:


    On the one hand, it may be true in general that attention to one kind of X can distract from other kinds of X, so attention to one kind of intelligence or cognition can distract from other kinds. On the other hand, it may also be true in general that attention to one part of X tends to draw attention to other parts of X, so that attention to one part of intelligence or cognition can draw our attention to other parts. Further, honing any cognitive skill, and improving our ability to collaborate in thinking, may in general tend to help us see important things, so that attention to clear terms and direct reasons may help a tradition see the importance of other kinds of cognition. Overall, which approach by a tradition presents the greater presumptive risk of failing to develop special gongfu cognition well: skill at definition and argument, or the lack of such skill? I don’t know.


    Does the Western textual or practical tradition fall distinctively short in understanding or engaging in the arts of living for individuals, or in attention to kinds of individual cognition that have no direct use for definitions or arguments?

    That is a question about Western practices and institutions, and about Western works in literature, education, psychology, philosophy, etiquette, and “self-help,” and related fields. To look only at Western academic philosophy seems inappropriate, – a point discussed in connection with Kupperman in another thread on this blog: http://warpweftandway.wordpress.com/2010/02/08/big-moment-ethics-and-philosophy/

    It seems to me that the bulk of Western academic philosophy is concerned with norms: concerned with how to think, how to pursue scientific progress, how to act rightly and live well, and how to organize society. It seems to me that Western philosophical method puts a premium on nonverbal cognition (“intuitions”), but also on the effort to articulate that wisdom for discussion. It seems to me offhand that Western philosophers are sensitive to their distinction between knowing that and knowing how (etc.). And it seems to me that on the whole, Western academic philosophy is self-consciously part of a division of labor: it does not imagine that it can or should displace work in literature, education, etc. In my opinionit is not correct to take academic philosophy as most academic philosophers’ conception of the pursuit of wisdom, nor to suppose that Western academic philosophers have any view of the proper way for an individual to build her own wisdom, any more than they have a view of the proper way for an individual to build her own cell phone.

    Granted, much work in Western academic philosophy is small-minded hack-work. But surely that’s true of all fields and activities everywhere?

    Arguably Western culture falls short in nonverbal cognition by falling short in common ritual, in the interest of liberty, a powerful cognitive device. Instead we have other kinds of commonality, such as the rule of law, helping to ensure that the frameworks of our lives are comparable so that we are intellgible to one another. My experience with various aspects of the law is a representative picture of what the law means for other people in my country. And we used to have network television.

    But your concern doesn’t seem to be that the West has too much variety. You write in the first essay:
    a person who follows the Aristotelian metaphysics will clearly place more effort in cultivating her intelligence, whereas a person who follows the Confucian relational metaphysics will pay more attention to learning rituals that would harmonize interpersonal relations. This approach opens up the possibility of allowing multiple competing visions of excellence, including the metaphysics or religious beliefs by which they are understood and guided, and justification of these beliefs is then left to the concrete human experiences.


    A much more interesting question, I think, is: what are some of the main ways or devices by which texts can help us with the parts or kinds of intelligence or cognition that you have in mind?

    The main textual device you emphasize in your NYTimes essays is the assertion of abstract truth-claims without concern for whether they are really true, for the sake of their metaphorical significance and/or other side-effects of people’s believing them to be true, or pretending to believe them. Confucius employs a more modest device when he proposes acting as though one is officiating at a sacrifice (An. 12.2).

    Other devices in classic Chinese (and modern Western) texts are the brief narrative (sometimes kin to the first device); the pithy saying, commonly but not necessarily in the imperative mode; and codes of ceremony. Are there other interesting devices you would mention?


    Regarding what I called “the assertion of abstract truth-claims without concern for whether they are really true, for the sake of the side-effects of people’s believing them to be true, or pretending to believe them”:

    On the one hand of course, at first glance the practice seems like a destructive intellectual vice. On the other hand, truth-claims do have kinds of significance other than their literal meaning, so it is reasonable to ask whether we should sometimes engage in a little philosophical “bullshit,” as we might sometimes steal or smoke, for the results. No doubt we should do such things far less often than we seem to see good consequential reasons for doing them, but that doesn’t mean we should never do them at all.

    One important issue, I suppose, is whether we are aiming at the effects of genuinely believing the things, in which case we are talking about deceiving readers; or instead aiming at the effects of pretending to believe the things, in which case we are talking about something like fictional literature. If the first is bad and you are talking about something in between the two, then it would seem to be important to be clear about just what is that intermediate position. How is this practice something that we can do responsibly?

    Again, it is of course true that truth-claims can have kinds of significance other than the literal. Newtonian physics is a famous example, as it seems to have led to mechanistic views of other things. You seem to argue in your first essay that the kind of intellectual integrity that would strive not to be distracted by a concern for such consequences is unrealistic:

    Even when philosophers take their ideas as pure theoretical discourse aimed at finding the Truth, their ideas have never stopped functioning as guides to human life. The power of modern enlightenment ideas have been demonstrated fully both in the form of great achievements we have witnessed since the modern era and in the form of profound problems we are facing today. Our modes of behavior are very much shaped by philosophical ideas that looked innocent enough to be taken for granted.

    Your point here seems to be that purely theoretical inquiry has unintended practical side-effects, and that in addition to being impressive, these have in fact caused huge problems. You might mean the problems that derive from technological achievements, especially pertaining to overpopulation, environmental damage, and technologies of communication and entertainment. Other problems derive perhaps from untrue ideas about economics, politics, or foreigners; or from a deficiency of clearheadedness about whether claims about gods are really true (not to mention claims about birth certificates). I am not sure how any of these problems supports your point, unless your point is the very plausible one that a hard-headed respect for truth is dangerous because it generates technology.


    You write in the first essay,
    Mistaking the language of Chinese philosophy for, in Richard Rorty’s phrase, a “mirror of nature” is like mistaking the menu for the food.

    I don’t understand. (The context doesn’t seem to help.) Chinese philosophical language relates to a “mirror of nature” as a menu relates to food (i.e. Chinese philosophical language gives us access to cognitive representations without itself consisting of cognitive representations)?

    Or do you mean instead that Chinese philosophical language relates to a “mirror of nature” as food relates to a menu? Then the suggestion would seem to be that Chinese philosophical language is the food, not (as a reader of Western philosophy might expect) a mere menu. That is, where Western mirror philosophy is merely about life, Chinese philosophical language is a form of life. The payoff, the good living in store, is the linguistic activity itself. Is that what you mean?

    Maybe your point is based on the idea that a menu is not (merely) a “mirror” or description of the available food, but is also a device for pointing and ordering, so that mistaking Chinese philosophical language for a “mirror of nature” is like mistaking a menu for a description of the food and prices. Is that what you mean?

    Your second essay returns to the image, but the context seems to show that here the point is that mistaking a “mirror of X” for X is like mistaking the menu for the food. That is not a point about Chinese philosophical language. Does the same image have different meanings in the two essays?


    There is much more I would like to try to think through. I feel there is much that is valuable in your essays that I have not yet absorbed. But I also think it is long past time for me to stop and post!

    • Peimin Ni says:

      Hi, Bill: Thank you so much for writing down your detailed comments, especially for laying out your disagreements. This is the kind of dialogue that can be truly productive. Your comments, along with many others I received so far, have tempted me to write a book-length articulation/discussion of the points that are merely touched upon in my NYT articles as well as many other issues that these points will lead to. Let me here first offer an acknowledgment and express my appreciation for your comments, and I look forward to finding some time to respond to these comments. — Peimin

      • Bill Haines says:

        Thank you, Peimin, for these gracious words. I hope you succumb to the temptation you mention: I think you are talking about some extremely important and interesting things.

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