Warp, Weft, and Way

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

Garfield and Van Norden in NYT

The latest “Stone” column in the New York Times features a provocative piece by Jay Garfield and Bryan Van Norden titled “If Philosophy Won’t Diversify, Let’s Call It What It Really Is.”

May 11th, 2016 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Profession | 11 comments

11 Responses to Garfield and Van Norden in NYT

  1. Grad Student says:

    There’s no need to panic, non-Western philosophies are rejected on stylistic grounds, not because they’re non-Western. leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2016/05/anglophone-…

    • Manyul Im says:

      We have a policy about using names in order to promote open, transparent, and collegial discussion. Please assist us in this goal by identifying yourself. Thanks.

    • Brian says:

      I don’t think non-Western philosophies are rejected, I think they are ignored, and I don’t think they’re ignored mainly on stylistic grounds but because there are no professional ramifications or pressures that penalize ignoring them. Also, life is short, grad school is short, students focus on what their teachers do, etc. etc. etc. The remedy for this is not to misname Anglophone departments, which practice ignoring philosophy on a very wide and diverse scale.

  2. Kai Marchal says:

    Interesting and timely piece!

  3. Steve Angle says:

    I have a few comments about the comments, primarily those on the NYT site and also, to some degree, those on the Leiter Report site.

    (1) It is remarkable and depressing how many people are willing to confidently assert “facts” justifying the status quo that even a little investigation (or a less cursory reading of the article) would show to be false.

    (2) I was also struck by the many comments along the lines of “the REAL problem is the exclusion of continental European philosophy from American philosophy departments” — and by the fact that a high percentage of the comments that the “NYT recommends” (chosen maybe by the Stone editors?) make this point. Which really seems neither here nor there in terms of the substance of the article. Much the same goes for Brian Leiter’s main point, which similarly turns on the exclusion of quite a lot of European and American philosophy from US philosophy departments.

    (3) Finally, since I can no longer even find my own comment buried beneath the many hundreds of others, I thought I would reproduce it (as best I can recall) here. It is intended in something like the same spirit as Jay and Bryan’s article:

    When I arrived at Wesleyan University 22 years ago to teach Chinese philosophy in the Philosophy Department, my colleagues took a different approach. Instead of renaming the department, we renamed individual courses. For example, “Early Modern Philosophy” became “Early Modern European Philosophy,” so that students would not be confused by the absence of a great philosopher like Dai Zhen (1724-1777). I suggested that we might consider “Qing Dynasty European Philosophy,” but my colleagues demurred :-).

  4. Amy Olberding says:

    I try to stay off the comments on these things, but I admit I have succumbed. I’ve read too many of them – too many blog threads – and so posted a summary of all of them and comment on the tone of it all. I’ll re-post it here in case anyone wants to get the quick version for every conversation ever had on this, it seems:

    On my most cynical days, I think we can dispense with any further conversations about including non-western traditions. For here are all the conversations:

    Someone proposes expanding the field to better incorporate non-western sources.

    The conversation will then go on with the following ingredients, mixed in various proportions and orders:

    a) someone(s) will simultaneously profess not to know non-western sources and express skepticism that the sources are philosophical;

    b) someone(s) will offer argument that – hey! – there are some good things out there and here’s a list of some (which, if ensuing future iterations of nearly identical blog conversations are indication, most everyone will ignore);

    c) someone(s) will make claims along the lines of “I once read something in that area and it wasn’t very good” and thereby ostensibly settle the matter for us all;

    d) someone(s) will offer incredibly condescending remarks purporting to explain what philosophy is (once and for all! in a blog comment!) and, well, there it is, non-western stuff just, alas, doesn’t fit (not that there’s anything wrong with that!);

    e) someone(s) will offer patronizing paths toward normality for the deviant folk studying non-western traditions (e.g., if you could just justify yourselves to us with reference to forms and styles we find completely familiar and won’t overtax us, then you could belong too);

    f) someone(s) will claim as unexceptional fact that philosophy isn’t western at all but cosmopolitan, universal, objective, physics-like (pick your own wildly ambitious poison here) and so must for its own good purity eschew things bearing cultural labels;

    g) someone(s) will play precision-mongerer and take issue with some minutiae in any proposed expansion and insist that change ought stop dead in its tracks till we sort out this tiny detail;

    h) someone(s) will point out that as mere mortals with limited budgets, we can’t be expected to do everything (or presumably even anything where non-western traditions are concerned);

    i) the entire conversation will expire under the weight of all of this until next time someone resurrects it like, zombie-like, to “live” all over again in our consideration with all of the points a)-h) to be repeated.

    What you won’t find in any of these conversations: reasonable intellectual humility, anything like the inveterate curiosity philosophy purportedly cultivates, or responsiveness to epistemic authority and expertise. I submit the following question: Who would be best positioned to *know* or authoritatively make recommendations about what, if any, non-western philosophy should be included in US departments? Answer: Trained philosophers who have expertise in the non-western philosophical domains under consideration. Now since this is, after all, philosophy, I don’t expect complete deference to authority but even a modicum of intellectual humility, curiosity, and respect for epistemic authority would be a nice change. Put more plainly, Bryan Van Norden and Jay Garfield are *philosophers* and *experts* in Chinese and Buddhist traditions (respectively) and think there’s something worth incorporating here. Their compatriots with relevant training do too. I do wish all the folks on this thread trying to *school* all these folks would at least pause to recognize that you are interacting with *other philosophers who in fact know more that is salient than you do.* If we saw even a little of that, maybe the zombie would finally die. Until then, I will make a bingo card of the above and await the next installment of the zombie chronicles.

    • Alexus McLeod says:

      Yep- this sounds like most conversations on the topic I’ve heard too. Round and round we go in a seemingly endless circle. I guess we can always find strength in the response of Analects 18.7: 君子之仕也,行其義也。道之不行,已知之矣。

    • This is a great comment. I feel like scholarship has reached a critical mass where the only reasons left for excluding Chinese philosophy from depts are bad ones, like those expressed in a)-h) (except for b) I suppose). While a century ago, it might have been more understandable (but still woefully ignorant) to say “Well, you know all that wishy-washy ‘Confucius says,’ mystical silliness doesn’t belong in a philosophy classroom,”—given the state of the scholarship now (and for some time, even in light of Paul Goldin’s comment below [with which I have some sympathy]), this view isn’t at all tenable, nor has it been for decades now. The way I see it, we’ve got three crucial steps to getting Chinese philosophy in the curriculum, each of which demands different epistemic responsibilities of different groups:

      1) *Carrying out* the philosophical work with the source texts. Whose responsibility is that? Philosophically trained experts on the texts.

      2) *Demonstrating* the philosophical value of the texts in tangible work. Whose responsibility is that? Philosophically trained experts on the texts.

      3) *Accepting* the the philosophically informed expert analysis of the value of the texts. Whose responsibility is that? Philosophically trained non-experts on the texts.

      Then, Chinese philosophy will be accepted and respected.

      The experts, I think, have held up their end of the bargain and worked for decades on steps 1) and 2), but there are far too many non-experts who don’t make good on 3), who “deny the science” and spout talking points from a)-h), who bury their heads in the sand or turn away from the expert evidence. Then, a frustrated (if not frustrating) piece like that by Van Norden and Garfield shows up, without much reference to the work done in 1)-2), and people make complaints from a)-h) that the experts haven’t fulfilled their obligations in 1) and 2). But they have. Kind of reminds me of ideology-driven climate science denial.

      I think these discussions often reach dead-ends (or go in circles) because the experts don’t feel like they should have to endlessly appeal to the fulfillment of 1) and 2). And indeed, they shouldn’t have to given the state of scholarship. So when 3) isn’t honored by the non-experts but there’s more evidence that 1) and 2) have been honored than it makes sense to cite, the epistemic contract is broken due to epistemic irresponsibility on the part of non-experts. What explains this irresponsibility? Ideology? Prejudice? Laziness? Racism? All of the above? Nobody likes being called those things though, so when these kinds of explanations show up in a piece like Van Norden and Garfield’s, people run right to a)-h) rather than consult whether or not 1) and 2) have been fulfilled, which they obviously have. Of course though, if the charge is that non-experts are being epistemically non-virtuous, it’s kind of bizarre to appeal to points as epistemically non-virtuous as a)-h).

    • Manyul Im says:

      If this were Facebook, I would “heart” your comment, Amy. On the money.

  5. Although I agree with the last few responses, let me put forward the potentially unpopular view that you guys have been partly responsible for your own marginalization within your departments by trying to package Chinese philosophy in a form that your unsympathetic colleagues can understand.

    One example is speaking of figures like Laozi and Zhuangzi as though they were real people who wrote the books that are traditionally attributed to them and espoused a correspondingly coherent philosophy that can be reconstructed in essentially the same way that one reconstructs the philosophy of Hobbes or Locke. No one seriously denies that all this is historically indefensible, and yet philosophers do it over and over. My only theory is that you guys need to present your colleagues with Chinese answers to Plato and Aristotle, so you work with fictitious versions of Laozi and Zhuangzi.

    In the same vein, I can’t comprehend why terms like “Legalism” and “Daoism,” which are extinct everywhere else because they’re anachronistic, ambiguous, and inaccurate, seem to perdure in Philosophy departments. I don’t think you guys do yourselves any favors by perpetuating such terms. Philosophically, they’re nearly meaningless, and historically, again, they’re totally indefensible. My theory here too is that you guys need to present your colleagues with Chinese answers to Stoicism and Epicureanism and what not, so you work with fictitious versions of Legalism, Daoism, etc.

    But most of all, by letting your unsympathetic colleagues dictate what is and is not “philosophy,” you reduce the immense complexity of Chinese philosophy to the few texts that might be made to fit their standards. So Mozi becomes the consequentialist (because your unsympathetic colleagues have heard of consequentialism), Mencius the virtue ethicist (ditto), and so on. The proof, for me, is that I rarely see philosophers cite any classical sources other than the Analects, Mozi, Mencius, Laozi, Zhuangzi, and Xunzi. Maybe Han Feizi, but only within the past ten years or so. It’s the same material, over and over–now and then a new approach to the same material, but still the same material.

    Naturally, I don’t mean to say that you’re all guilty of this, but collectively, if you’re concerned about the status of your field, I think you ought to take these rhetorical missteps more seriously.

    I do hope you guys win.

    • Joel Baranowski says:

      I can only concur with Paul R. Goldin’s remarks regarding self-marginalization.

      Two further points.

      First, contributors to the most recent APA newsletter on Asian philosophy have overlooked the political background to the problem of treating Chinese philosophy as philosophy.

      Second, while the scholarship in Chinese philosophy has gotten much better, it needs much more improvement.

      Another shameless plug: I invite you all to examine my politically incorrect pamphlet, Confucians on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, (see the Corrected version at academia.edu or by email on request)which was a 7000 word response to Yong Huang’s essay, The “Double Bind” on Specialists in Chinese Philosophy.

      Best regards,

      Joel Baranowski

      Xi’an Jiaotong University
      Department of Philosophy


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