The article from the current issue of Dao that we have chosen for discussion is Michael Slote’s “The Philosophical Reset Button: A Manifesto,” available via open-access here. This time around, we offer opening comments from both BAI Tongdong of Fudan University, and myself (Steve Angle). Those comments follow here, and let the discussion begin!
Bai Tongdong, Fudan University
In this article, Slote argues that Western philosophical tradition is too rationalistic, and it should be reset by taking into the wisdom of the Chinese philosophical tradition that emphasizes the role of emotion, empathy in particular, in good life, ethics, politics, and even in epistemology. A focus of my own research is to show the contemporary and comparative relevance of traditional Chinese philosophy, and thus I highly appreciate Slote’s “manifesto.” There are many deeply felt—not just recognized—agreements between him and me, but I will focus on a few differences in the following.
1) Is the Western philosophical tradition overly rationalistic? I tend to be suspicious of general claims like this. Socrates (not the historical figure, but the central character of Plato’s dialogues) seems to express a longing for a world of Ideas, but we shouldn’t forget that he is known for his irony and Plato never speaks in his own voice. Oftentimes, what Socrates says on the surface can’t be simply taken as what he actually means. He famously claims that body is a hindrance to the pursuit of the soul, but then rejects suicide out of the obedience to some god’s will, a rejection offered by someone who is tried for impiety. Aristotle does say the life of theoria is the best, but this is a controversial “Platonic turn” in his otherwise a-Platonic, if not anti-Platonic, work on ethics. The French philosopher Pierre Hedot claims that the way of life was also a central concern for ancient Western thinkers, and the so-called rationalistic turn may have become dominant only during Western modernity. Franklin Perkins has an interesting article (unpublished) on the issue of philosophy as a way of life in West and in China.
2) Is the Chinese tradition focused on emotions? Again, the Chinese tradition is a big camp, and let me just mention Han Fei Zi the Legalist philosopher who doesn’t seem to have much use of sympathy-based moral cultivation. Indeed, he is a harsh and perhaps one of the most incisive critics of Confucian moral cultivation. His political philosophy reminds us of Machiavelli and Hobbes, although he lived 2,000 years or so before the latter.
3) Do we really need Chinese philosophers to reset (Western) philosophy? Many of the ideas Slote wishes to promote are already developed by Western feminists, care ethicists, etc. Some of the issues, such as the role of empathy in epistemology, are not really a serious concern for traditional Chinese philosophers, and their relevance to these issues has to be a big stretch.
4) Again, do we really need Chinese philosophy to reset (Western) philosophy? In spite of what I just said, my answer is yes! But to me, the reason is that human beings qua human beings have universally shared problems that can transcend time, space, and peoples. Different philosophers offer different answers to commonly shared human problems. Then, in doing comparative philosophy, we shouldn’t begin with comparing concepts, but should understand the underlying problems and see if there are shared or commensurable problems between the objects of comparison. If there are, we can compare the solutions offered by different philosophers and evaluate their relative merits. In this sense, we are not really doing comparative philosophy between China and the West, but between different philosophers/philosophical texts. No one should question the significance of comparing Plato with Aristotle in terms of our understanding of both, and of philosophy in general. Then, why shouldn’t we compare Plato with Confucius, Hobbes with Han Fei Zi, etc.? There may be some fundamental differences between Chinese and Western philosophies, but we can only discover them after we give some comprehensive comparisons among all the Great Books in the past, Chinese and Western. But it is not to deny the particular value of comparing Chinese philosophy with Western philosophy, because to experts on both sides, the other is indeed much more the Other, the Stranger, than the usual suspects of comparison within one tradition.
5) To conclude, then, the comparative work between Chinese and Western philosophical traditions is one for all those who are philosophically curious, not just to “you Chinese.” And indeed, for good or for bad, the West can only turn to the Other when its Self gets into trouble (its philosophy, its politics, and above, “it is the economy, stupid”), relative to the other. So, for a richer philosophical scenery, let’s pray for the Chinese economical miracle to continue a bit longer!
Steve Angle, Wesleyan University
For many readers of this blog, Michael Slote’s “Philosophical Reset Button” will sound like preaching to the choir: yes, surely Chinese philosophical traditions have much to teach us! His connection between post-World War II US global power and the current influence of Anglo-American philosophy within professional philosophy circles around the world makes good sense, as does the speculation that as China’s global influence continues to rise, so will Chinese culture, including its philosophical traditions, have an opportunity to play an increasing role around the world. In this brief comment, I propose to reflect a bit more about what it might mean to “reset” a philosophical tradition or community, and thus on how things may go from here.
Here are three ways in which tradition A (in this case, the Western tradition) may be change as a result of encountering tradition B (Chinese philosophy). (1) At the most conservative end of the spectrum, adherents of A may look into B for solutions to problems already well-defined within A. (2) More change may come when adherents of A learn enough of B to see that it challenges ways that they have formulated some of their questions; B puts emphasis on ideas that have no direct correlate in A, or at least aren’t important in A’s framework; and so on. Adherents of A respond to these challenges by making piecemeal changes to their framework, re-building it from the inside. (3) Most radically, adherents of A may be convinced to abandon A and adopt B. Alasdair MacIntyre is our leading theorist of this possibility; in works like Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (1988) he sets down the conditions that would have to be met for adherents of one tradition to choose to adopt an alternative. They have to see that their own tradition has failed in its own terms, see that an alternative tradition is succeeding in its own terms, and furthermore that the alternative tradition can explain the failure of their original tradition. Under such circumstances, MacIntyre says, it is rational to jump ship.
Some of Michael’s language suggests that he may have something like (3) in mind. Ironically, one of the best examples of this type of arguments in recent world history comes from early-twentieth-century China, when intellectuals like Chen Duxiu called for the rejection of Chinese traditions in favor of “wholesale Westernization,” using reasoning that anticipate MacIntyre quite closely. Of course, what actually happened in twentieth-century China is different from and more complicated than a wholesale change from one tradition or discourse to another. And on balance, I do not think that the reset for which Michael is calling is really this extreme. He recognizes that the Chinese traditions are not, themselves, perfect (see his remark near the end about human rights), and I expect that what he really hopes for is a robust version of my option (2).
For even (2) to happen, many of us have more work to do. This is not just true of Anglophone scholars of and practitioners of Chinese philosophy (i.e., readers of this blog). A major obstacle in the way of philosophers in China playing the role that Michael envisions is the tendency for scholars in China to engage with Chinese traditions in exclusively historical or culturalist modes, typified by the category or “national studies (guoxue).” Even within philosophy departments, a great deal of work is organized around the chronological tracking of a term or idea, in which the bulk of the scholarship consists in assembling relevant texts into one schema or another. The challenge is to use native traditions of philosophical questioning and inquiry—which certainly exist—as a starting point for a new form of Chinese philosophy, without simply re-inscribing the categories of Western philosophy. To do this, Chinese philosophers themselves will need to engage in some degree of growth and change of type (2). To some degree, that is, the current practice of philosophy in China needs its own reset, if it is to satisfactorily instigate a reset within Western philosophy.