Warp, Weft, and Way

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

The Limits of Academic Philosophy?


I have lately been reading Frank Perkins’s marvelous book Heaven and Earth are Not Humane: The Problem of Evil in Classical Chinese Philosophy (Indiana, 2014). There’s lots of rich and provocative content in the book worth talking about, but at least for right now I want to focus on a different kind of question that Frank raises right at the beginning, on p. 5. Discussing the question of whether Warring States thought is appropriately labelled “philosophy,” he writes that “in practice, [this] is a question about institutions and the power of inclusion and exclusion… Certain boundaries are accepted in practice by almost all academic philosophers.”

In particular:

  • “It would be strange if not illegal to require ethical action as part of a philosophy major.”
  • “Direct involvement of the body is excluded. It would be controversial in almost any philosophy department to have students meditate in class.”
  • “Explicit appeals to authority are excluded from philosophy and taken as fallacious.”

Frank then adds that the issue is not really about philosophy as a discipline, as much as the boundaries we accept for academia as a whole, “which make it impossible for professors in any discipline to do what Zhuangzi or Mengzi themselves were trying to do.” Because the boundaries of academia seem “firmly set,” our choices are then either to ignore early China, or to approach it through these existing rubrics, all the while cognizant of the various distortions that this involves.

My question to you all is: to what extent do we really have to accept the boundaries of academic philosophy as set? Have any of you tried to push at these boundaries, and with what results? Are the three exclusions that Frank raises the key issues, or are there other exclusions (or problematic inclusions) that we might be concerned with as well?

Let me conclude by saying that my premise here is not that we can or even should want to do precisely what Zhuangzi or Mengzi was trying to do. But we might want to come closer to it, in one or another dimension, that academia/philosophy currently make easy. Thoughts?


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