I’m working on a “demarcation problem” section for my textbook, touching on issues about philosophy, Western philosophy, and Chinese philosophy. I’ve actually learned a lot from discussing the issue with some of you on the blog. Also, I was happy to discover — belatedly — a great piece by Carine Defoort that lays out the issues in a nicely structured way and helps me to see how my own thinking maps onto the spectrum of views one could have about Chinese philosophy.
Here is a brief excerpt from the beginning of Defoort’s “Is There Such a Thing as Chinese Philosophy? Arguments of an Implicit Debate” (Philosophy East and West 51:3 (Jul., 2001), pp. 393-413). I’m not sure why I’ve never read this piece before, given my interest in the topic, but I’m just now discovering it, along with follow-up discussion pieces five years later (PEW 56:4) by Rein Raud and Defoort. In this excerpt, Defoort lays out the origins of the term “Chinese Philosophy” (394-5):
The Expression “Chinese Philosophy”
Doubt over the legitimacy of Chinese philosophy is not exclusively the result of Western chauvinism. Indeed, the expression “Chinese philosophy” encompasses a strange paradox, which threatens to call its very identity into question. Just like other concepts such as “science” or “human rights,” philosophy, by definition, makes a certain claim to universality, without thereby denying its particular, Western origin. “Spanish science” or “Swiss human rights” sounds strange to our ears because the adjectives in these expressions pose a threat to the universal pretensions of the respective nouns. Whatever these expressions might mean, we are not inclined to accept that they refer to a type of science or human rights that is only valid in these countries. Philosophy is somewhat more lenient in this respect: we are accustomed to such expressions as “Continental” or “Anglo-Saxon” philosophy, denoting different types or genres within the philosophical tradition. But even here we do not accept that the adjective stakes such a claim upon the noun that “Continental philosophy” could only be grasped by the European continental mind. In the expression “Chinese philosophy,” however, the grip of the adjective upon the noun appears so strong that philosophy risks being suffocated.
One important reason for this is that the term “philosophy”—just like many other Western terms—has been applied to the Chinese tradition in retrospect. During the nineteenth century, Japan opened its doors and turned to the West for inspiration and modernization. So did China with the coming of the twentieth century, sending students to Japan to learn of its success. A Japanese scholar, Nishi Amane (1829-1887), had studied in the Netherlands and translated books into Japanese, among which were some on philosophy (in 1873). He invented a Japanese term on the basis of two Chinese characters: the “study” of “wisdom” 哲學 tetsugaku in Japanese, zhexue in Chinese. This was not particularly new; already in the seventeenth century, Western missionaries had labeled the great Chinese master and other classics (among them the Yijing or Book of Changes) as philosophy, and this while their Chinese contemporaries described Aristotle’s work in Chinese terms (qiongli gewu 窮理格物). What was new at the end of the nineteenth century was the disappearance of this cultural balance labeling the other in one’s own terms. Not only did Western philosophical terminology dominate proceedings, but it was also eagerly adopted by the Chinese, through Japanese translation, in the description of their own thought tradition. That part of the textual corpus that was traditionally assigned to the masters (zhuzi 諸子) along with some books of the Confucian Canon (jing 經)—continuing from the fifth century B.C. (by our count) up until the nineteenth century A.D.—has been retrospectively branded as “Chinese philosophy” (Zhongguo zhexue 中國哲學).
The strange thing is that this introduction of philosophy in China around the end of the nineteenth century, together with other disciplines and above all in the con- text of radical institutional changes, has practically marked the end of this very tradition of the masters. Those who nevertheless continue to study the old masters in a separate branch within philosophy departments no longer call themselves “masters,” but rather “specialists” in Chinese philosophy. The curriculum of this separate branch consists mainly of traditional Chinese thought as it existed up until the introduction of Western thinking. Historical compilations of Chinese philosophy also often stop at the end of the nineteenth century or the beginning of the twentieth. Thus, at the moment when Chinese philosophy was retrospectively created or recognized, it also largely ceased to exist as a living tradition. “Chinese philosophy” seems to have died of its own birth: “Chinese philosophy” (of the traditional masters) and “philosophy in China” (at modern universities) exclude each other in the sense that, since the introduction of the latter, the former could only continue to exist in a foreign institutional setting, as a separated corpus and object of study. The fatal allergic reaction that the Chinese masters have developed toward this strange discipline raises questions regarding their combination: is this actually Chinese? And is it still philosophy?
Defoort then goes on in subsequent sections to problematize the question of whether there is such a thing as Chinese philosophy. There are four positions that Defoort identifies, the first two tending toward treating the question as straightforwardly factual, the second two treating it as more conceptual and value-laden, respectively. Adding some of my own paraphrasing, Defoort’s four positions are:
- Chinese philosophy does not exist
- Chinese philosophy exists
- It depends on the descriptive meaning of “philosophy” (Defoort titles this position: What is the Meaning of “Philosophy”?)
- It depends on the value, whether pro or con, that one places on philosophy (Defoort titles this position: What is the Value of “Philosophy”?)
A quick look at the list might make most of us think of 3 as the “position” on which the other three depend, either implicitly or explicitly. In fact, the latter is one of the main points of Defoort’s piece — namely that the positions people take on the question of whether Chinese philosophy exists are usually full of implicit assumptions that are not clearly articulated explicitly. However, her point in calling 3 a separate position is that it represents the most explicit view out there, whereas the others are positions people take without actually stating up front what they mean by “philosophy.” Also, as we’ll see later, she characterizes 3 in such a way that it ends up being a substantive position that answers “yes” to the question of whether Chinese philosophy exists.
Defoort thinks the people who say that Chinese philosophy does not exist can really be of two varieties — those who take position 1 without really stating their assumptions about what they mean by ‘philosophy,’ and those who take up position 4 along with the premise that philosophy isn’t the sort of thing that’s so valuable that Chinese culture would be lacking anything important if it didn’t have it. Those who take up position one have, predictably, a narrow definition of ‘philosophy,’ according to Defoort. But actually, so do those who take up position 4 in the way Defoort characterizes them (though, ironically, she doesn’t seem to state this explicitly). Defoort explains how the narrow definition of ‘philosophy’ for those who take position 1 works (396):
[They give] a theoretical argument that states that the Chinese masters do not in general-and certainly not entirely-satisfy the conditions of philosophy. Western academics may, of course, differ regarding the definition of this term, but there is nevertheless a vague consensus that allows for a variety of writings under the label of philosophy, but not for just anything. Philosophy must give the appearance of systematicity, reflection, and rationality; it must differ from science and religion; and it must be divisible into various subdisciplines such as metaphysics, logic, and epistemology. A great deal of the teachings of the old Chinese masters from the so-called Golden Age of Chinese philosophy (the fifth to third centuries B.C.) rarely meet these demands. Thinkers like Laozi and Confucius, who are traditionally branded as the founders of Taoism and Confucianism, respectively, expressed themselves in short proverbs, aphorisms, or conversations without concerning themselves too much with systematicity, logic, or any other philosophical criterion.
Interestingly, Defoort’s description of the views held by those who deny that there is Chinese philosophy by taking some version of position 4, attributes an even narrower account of the meaning of ‘philosophy.’ This view is held by those who regard philosophy as (404):
…a primarily Western cultural product, a strange and useless conversation in which European tribes have trained themselves, full of earnestness and sedulity. It is a very specific discourse that for some reason or other has maintained a high level of subscription in the mysterious West.
(Though Defoort thinks it is mainly Chinese intellectuals who hold such a view, I’ve certainly spoken with a lot of Westerners whose recollections of their college philosophy classes sounded very much like this — substituting “uptightness” or something of the sort for “sedulity,” of course.)
On the other hand, the view that Chinese philosophy does exist is accommodated in two ways, according Defoort. One maneuver takes for granted the same sort of account of philosophy that those who take position 1 have — namely, that it is systematic, reflective, and rational; also that it is sub-dividable into metaphysics, logic, and epistemology — then attributes all those facets to the Chinese thinkers in question. Defoort cites Feng Yulan and Hu Shi as the pioneering figures in promoting the latter, through their reconstructions of the Chinese tradition along such lines (397-8). (This sort of approach, by the way, is probably what a lot of us tend toward, or at the least, it is the approach that led us into the field.) The other maneuver is to be more liberal with the term ‘philosophy’ and the possibilities for enriching our understanding of the concept it names. Defoort identifies this, actually, with position 3 (403):
The third position is held above all by sinologists with philosophical training and, analogously, by philosophers with sinological training. They claim, on the one hand, that the tradition of the Chinese masters sufficiently resembles the wider Western philosophical tradition — and not simply its modern variant — to be labeled as philosophy. After all, the masters pose questions of deep human concern while substantiating their ideas with examples and arguments. On the other hand, their themes and forms of reasoning are sometimes so fundamentally different from those of their Western counterparts that the Chinese masters offer a unique opportunity to question, in a philosophical manner, the current notion of “philosophy” itself.
Indeed, this may be something that Western philosophers tirelessly continue to do: strive for the ideal of objectivity or open-mindedness. Within the humanities this ideal can best be realized in confrontation with what is most different; and what is more different from our Western philosophical tradition than ancient Chinese thought? The third position admits that the adjective “Chinese” does have an influence on the term “philosophy,” but a beneficial one, because it breaks through the unarticulated — and therefore even stronger — modern limitations of the notion “philosophy” and its dominant categories.
Those who support the broadening of the prevailing term “philosophy” to encompass the Chinese masters perceive in Chinese thought not only the advantage of an entirely new perspective, but even a valuable alternative for what many consider to be an inveterate metaphysical tradition with its sharp contrast between reality and language, prescription and description, saying and doing, objective and subjective, self and other, and so on. It is no coincidence that the push for this appreciation of the Chinese heritage has arisen at the hands of critics of the Western tradition. According to them, we must focus our attention not on those ancient Chinese ideas that, after some adaptation, can be taken up within the circles of Western discussion, but precisely on those ideas that seem stubbornly subversive toward concepts and categories from the West.
I suspect readers of this blog hover somewhere between positions 2 and 3, as Defoort describes them. My own mind tends to depend on my mood — 2 when I’m in a good mood, 3 when less, and 1 when I’m in a foul mood from having struggled to make philosophical hay out of a difficult passage. I’d be curious to read your thoughts, both about Defoort and your own, considered answer to the question of whether there is such a thing as Chinese philosophy, especially to the extent that it brings into play different premises or principles from the ones Defoort discusses.