Neville's Projects for Chinese Philosophy

Many of you will recently have received the most recent ISCWP Newsletter. (If any readers are not members of the ISCWP and would like to be, please see information here about joining. There no mandatory dues.) In a short lead article, Sor-hoon Tan summarizes some remarks the Robert Neville made on the subject of the future of Chinese philosophy. I post the key points here.

The following is an excerpt of the eight projects which is discussed in much greater detail in the paper, a revised version of which will be published in the Pluralist, vol. 5, no. 2 (Summer 2010):
  1. To be creative about the first-order philosophical issues of our own time explicitly, to demonstrate the resourcefulness of Chinese Philosophy in addressing these issues
  2. To consciously re-sort its canon (e.g. the revival of interest in Xunzi), to read its history with a new eye recognising varied influences
  3. To inquire into what is portable from the Chinese past into the present philosophical discussions in a global context
  4. To enter into the discussion of cosmogony, the arising of the cosmos
  5. To contribute to the discussion of philosophical cosmology
  6. To bring into the study of human origins the rich Chinese understanding of ritual, especially that stemming from Xunzi but also as developed through millennia of engagements with the problems of human life
  7. To develop rituals of inter-cultural philosophical engagement
  8. To bring ritual theory to the analysis of global moral and political issues

17 replies on “Neville's Projects for Chinese Philosophy”

  1. Looks OK to me. Except —

    3 seems redundant with 1.

    I don’t have much hope for projects 4 and 5.

    There might have been something about philosophy’s genres of activity and written product, its institutional organization, and its place in society.

    I wonder if someone more sympathetic to the non-Confucian aspects of the Chinese tradition would have different emphases.

    • Hi Bill — I think that what Neville means by “first-order” issues means practical or “applied” problems, so he’s asking for various Chinese philosophical perspectives on genetic modification, climate change, and so on. And in fact there’s quite a bit of that lately — see (e.g.) this conference. I believe the Neville’s #3 is meant to be more general.

      Let me ask you this: what do you have in mind regarding genre, institutions, and so on? I take it that Neville is directing our attention to one aspect of this in his #7. There are general issues here; what, specifically, might someone working from Chinese traditions contribute along these lines?

    • Thanks for the clarification, Steve. In that case I think the list of 8 shortchanges broad ethical thought.

      By “genres of written product” I had in mind the Pithy Saying, which is different from the Philosophical Theory, the Moral Principle, and the Kantian Maxim; and possibly other genres such as the historically accreted text or the tendentious commentary.

      By “genres of activity” I meant kinds of philosophical conversation or education, kinds of spiritual discipline, and any other Chinese kinds of philosophical activity I don’t know about or don’t recall.

      I don’t know much about how philosophy has mainly been organized in China over the centuries, but it hasn’t been by conferences, refereed journals, or university teaching departments; so it’s been different from what the West has.

      Philosophy has had a more central and roughly more official role in Chinese than in Western society. At least some Chinese philosophy has. I gather that that centrality has been important to how Chinese philosophy conceives itself and chooses topics.

      I’m not saying I believe that any of these things is worth the West’s importing or shifting toward. Maybe they are. (Especially I think the Pithy Saying is worth attention.) I’m just saying that if Chinese Philosophy wants to engage with the rest of philosophy and display its special merits, these are major areas it ought to be thinking about.

    • Apropos the “Pithy Saying,” it might be worth looking at the reasons for which early German Romantics came to consciously prefer the “fragment” as mode of discourse. Not something I know much about, but a recent lecturer here got me thinking along these lines.

  2. 4, and perhaps 5, seem hopelessly pre-modern, nearly comic to my sensibilities. Am I just too much of a cynical quasi-positivist? It seems like serious inquiry into “the arising of the cosmos” requires scientific tools, nearly exclusively. What are we imagining, trying to insert modified yin and yang theory into the scientific discussion?

    • I have to admit that I share those sentiments, even while not thinking of myself as either cynical or a quasi-positivist. I just can’t understand how Chinese philosophy can contribute to contemporary debates about such things, or even what such contemporary debates might look like. (Is there an ongoing project in philosophical cosmology? What can it be? What does it aspire to?)

  3. on #6: why especially Xunzi on 禮? Some might be inclined to think that his way of doing it, even if the most developed understanding of the concept of all the Pre-Qin thinkers, wasn’t the best way. I’d like to hear more about why he thinks Xunzi merits particular emphasis in understanding the “Chinese understanding of ritual”

  4. Hi,
    I guess only reading Neville’s full essay will do him justice; and I hope those of you with questions about his projects will do so. Pending that, let me try to clarify based on my understanding of the talk he gave at the APA. The main problem (1) is tackling is the tendency of some “Chinese philosophers” to spend their time mainly on textual exegesis or argueing over minute issues of interpretation. I did not get the impression that Neville intends first order questions to be mainly practical problems (4&5 indicate that too), they include the kind of problems philosophers work on all the time, e.g. what is ultimately real? Can one be moral? What is knowledge? Why is democracy worth pursuing?
    The main difference between (1) and (3) is globalization and the new problems it throws up, even for philosophers.
    (4) and (5) are not my cup of tea either, and I have some difficulty squaring that with the Pragmatist sympathies which I believe Neville has; but I suppose there are all kinds of Pragmatists. Neville probably believes that without an adequate cosmogony and cosmology, we are not likely to get very far with ethics or other practical questions — tough to defend, but perhaps we should read his defense rather than second hand from someone with quite different philosophical inclinations.
    I actually like his suggestion about the importance of rituals and recovering Xunzi. Although there is quite a bit about rituals in the Analects (and Fingarette of course made a big deal of it), but of the three pre-Qin Confucian texts, only the Xunzi had a thematic discussion of rituals — and his take on this sounds very sensible even to a twentieth century Deweyan Pragmatist. The study of Chinese rituals of course could not stop with Xunzi, and there are probably not only varied, but even inconsistent accounts and understanding of this topic. And Neville is not saying Xunzi has exclusive importance. Besides the earlier reason I mentioned, his concern in (3) about “re-sorting the canon” suggests that the emphasis on Xunzi is intended to question the orthodox genealogy which sometimes even exclude Xunzi from the Confucian canon.
    Other than using Neville’s proposals to provide grist for the mill in our blog discussion, I also hope that others would propose their alternatives of the key projects which Chinese philosophy should be focusing on in our time.

    • I think a pragmatist might be bolder about cosmogony and cosmology than the rest of us, insofar as she is less concerned with the “Truth” of a view than with the effects of believing it.

      I agree, more or less, with Manyul and Hagop about 4 and 5, and I’m astonished that these particular first-order questions are the ones that get mentioned specifically. On the other hand, I think I can sort of see how someone might think that the idea that we are crossroads of the ambient Qi might be very valuable pragmatically and might somehow potentially address the mind-body problems that might become more urgent as our automobiles learn to think.

  5. Hello, all. This is my first crack at the blog.

    I was on the same panel as Prof. Neville in NYC. I delivered a paper on the topic of cosmology and cosmogony in early Daoism. The paper proposed another interpretation DDJ 42 in light of the Taiyishengshui. A longer version of this paper is available if anyone is interested [“’Embracing the One’ in the Daodejing,” PEW vol. 59, no. 3, July 2009 364-381]. The longer version presents in more detail the historical and philosophical context behind my conference paper.

    Neville suggested that my paper was a good example of what he means by projects 4 and 5. Now, I am not sure that I would describe my project in those terms exactly. I thought of my project in more historical terms as one of reconstruction – especially since it tries to further our understanding of an “old” tradition based on “new” evidence (i.e. recently unearthed documents). There are, of course, no pure historians of early Chinese philosophy. Anyone who works with these texts takes them up in a different way, one shaped by his/her own education, library, interests, diet, or whatever. Maybe this hermeneutical truism means that I am engaged in project #5 whether I like it or not. Perhaps we all “contribute” to “philosophical cosmology” more than we think we do when we offer our interpretations of the DDJ.

    In the 19th century, religious commitment often shaped interpretations of Chinese philosophies. Perhaps this still happens. Most of us now, it seems, are shaped by one or more philosophical orientations: virtue ethics, pragmatism, analytic philosophy, process philosophy, feminism etc. If “cosmology” refers to anything these days, maybe it refers to the most general set of assumptions about reality that each of these various orientations assume. Every philosophy assumes more that it explicitly states, and these assumptions are carried over into our treatments of Chinese philosophy every time – whether we realize it or not.

    So, part of what compelled me to write my paper was the hope that something might be learned about early Chinese philosophy if more could be said about the “cosmological” assumptions that informed some segment of the tradition, assumptions that may or may not bear resemblance to certain assumptions in my own head. Through evidence that I consider at least partly historical, I argue that it is likely that some segment of authorship and/or readership of the DDJ held cosmological assumptions similar to the ones I describe in my paper. Quite naturally (to me), Peirce came to mind as I thought through these assumptions. So much for my being perfectly “objective!”

    So, what is the value of such work as this? If it has any merit, it lies in the fact that coming to better understand the “cosmological” assumptions of an early Chinese philosophy would no doubt improve our understanding of what that philosophy stands for and for how its various assertions fit together. I have no idea if my attempt succeeds, but my hope is that it does. Since each of us holds some (at least tacit) understanding of the “cosmological” assumptions of certain Chinese philosophies – this being necessary for any grasp of a philosophy at all – I do not consider attempts to improve these understandings to be in the least bit controversial. However: if one tries to do this, can one AVOID engaging in cosmological reflection oneself?

    If that counts as comic, then so might studying Chinese philosophy.

    • Hi Jim; welcome to the discussion! Just two things before I try to get some sleep:

      First, I think Neville’s #4 is much harder to understand in a charitable way than #5. I don’t mean to do the territorial marking on behalf of the physicists, but doesn’t it seem like the origin or “arising” of the cosmos is a bit beyond the scope of serious contemporary philosophical inquiry? I could say some things about the big bang, but nothing very well informed unless I took it upon myself to become a physicist. I could also suggest that the big bang isn’t the whole story, perhaps invoking God or the Way; but again, how seriously could my claim be taken outside of a “believer’s” religious context? I know there are those who study philosophy *within* a religious belief context and if that’s what Neville is suggesting as the future of Chinese philosophy — namely to become believers in the Way to the extent that we commit ourselves to attempting cosmogonic theories based on belief in the Way, or something of the sort — I suppose that is a possible future for Chinese philosophy, but I’m not sure I want to be part of it. Maybe that’s reducible ultimately to a mere personal intellectual preference; if so, I plead Humean guilt here.

      What you describe of your own work sounds like very good heuristics for understanding an historical view. And to the extent that engaging in cosmological reflection, in the modes that seem historically plausible to attribute to, for example, the composer(s) of the DDJ is actually helpful for understanding his/her/their point of view and accompanying writings, I think you’re right on the mark. On the other hand, you can, as it were, “snap out of it” when you return to your non-historian life. Similarly, I might try to put myself into the frame of mind of a pre-Copernican astronomer in order to try to figure out how an attempted prediction of the movement of the planets, newly discovered in some palimpsest of Late Antiquity, became so mathematically unwieldy. If I were doing that, how could I avoid engaging in pre-Copernican astronomy? Nonetheless, I certainly wouldn’t consider myself outside of that context to be “contributing to the discussion of astronomy” or even to the discussion of philosophical astronomy (whatever that may be). But maybe cosmology is different from astronomy. I just don’t see how the heuristic that you rightly point out to be so useful in inquiry about historical cosmology leads to the outright practice of a contemporary cosmology.

      I appreciate Sor-hoon’s point that I should wait to see what Neville really means by the projects he lists in 4 and 5. Nonetheless, 4 and 5 have been “put out there” by Neville and he must be aware that they sound fairly provocative. So I don’t mind speculating a bit about possible views that 4 and 5 might represent, that I would find puzzling from a philosopher in the 21st century.

  6. Good points, Manyul.

    I do think that a sharp distinction can be drawn between the “historian” and the “believer.” But then again, there are all shades in-between. I never thought of myself as a “believer” in the DDJ, but I also don’t “snap out of it” very easily. The vision of the text never fails to grab me, and this compels me to do more scholarly research on it. I’m not sure what that makes me.

    The topic of pre-Copernican science raises demarcation issues that are well established in Western discourse, but perhaps not so well established within or pertinent to other cultural or practical contexts. Since I am more of a pragmatist than a positivist, I am not terribly dogmatic about demarcation issues. Most lines look a little fuzzy to me, especially across cultures and traditions.

    I suppose one can be a “quasi-positivist” on specific issues (e.g. the origin of the universe) and still be comfortable with the Chinese tradition. But a genuine-positivist, I would think, would not entertain Chinese philosophy for very long. Too few claims are strictly verifiable. If there are genuine-positivists that do research in Chinese philosophy, I suppose they would see themselves as total non-believers: doing pure history. But as I said above, I don’t think any of us do pure history.

  7. Jim writes, Neville suggested that my paper was a good example of what he means by projects 4 and 5.

    Without having heard the context, I hear that statement as saying mainly that the Chinese views Jim discussed and perhaps elucidated in his paper are the kinds of Chinese views Neville had in mind, so that what is relevant to interpreting Neville’s 4 and 5 is what kinds of views those were, rather than issues about the purity of historical work.

    Those views are about “the One” or “Unity” producing 2 and then other things, and continuing to support or generate them (as a spring supports its river) — vaguely reminiscent of Pythagoras and Hegel. (The paper shows how tracing these ideas through Laoist texts might be illuminating about the early relationship between Laoism and Confucianism.)

    On the sort of view Jim discusses, cosmogony and cosmology are practically the same thing. Yet Neville lists 4 and 5 separately, making them 25% of the list, a list that already covers them by a catch-all category (or two) and doesn’t specifically mention professional ethics, political thought, or moral psychology.

    One large group of people, many of whom think that grand philosophical arguments about cosmology and cosmogony are rationally compelling or at least show great promise, without the qualification “on the premises of Belief,” is Christians — such as, for example, Neville, whose own philosophical and comparative work Wikipedia describes as follows:

    His most significant scholarly contribution is an original solution to the problem of the one and the many. He produced it as his dissertation at Yale University, and published it subsequently as God the Creator. Exploring the implications of that work has enabled him to produce a philosophy of nature that rivals Alfred North Whitehead’s in scope, as can be seen from his three-volume Axiology of Thinking. More recently he has become a staunch advocate of the discipline of comparative theology, understood as the quest for truth about divine matters through comparison of religious ideas among various religious traditions. In this regard, Robert Neville has become a significant proponent of Confucianism as a world philosophy.

    • (Well, the list does mention a part of political thought: appplication of one idea from Chinese philosophy to one set of political issues (#8).)

  8. JeeLoo Liu, President of the ACPA, sent around the following message which I repost here, given its connection to this thread.

    I attended a talk on ‘New Projects in Chinese Philosophy’ given by Prof. Robert Neville at the APA Eastern a couple of months ago, and was greatly inspired by it. I share his view that contemporary Chinese philosophy needs to be more creative and it needs to address first-order philosophical issues of our time. With the support of the ACPA executive board, I would like to organize two or more sessions that continue to explore new projects in Chinese philosophy. Prof. Neville has agreed to play a key role in these sessions, and we will be proposing the sessions for the APA Eastern meeting to be held in Boston this December. We would like the selection of papers to be based on completed papers, not just abstracts. Therefore, we are calling for paper submission deadline on May 15 so that you have plenty of time to write up your paper (no more than 3,500 words).


    Jeeloo Liu


    New Projects in Chinese Philosophy

    Submission deadline: May 15, 2010

    The Association of Chinese Philosophers in America [ACPA] Group Meeting at the APA Eastern meeting
    December 27-30, 2010
    Marriott/Westin-Copley Connection, Boston


    Chinese philosophy maintains an indisputable importance for contemporary philosophical, cultural and historical studies. However, the development of Chinese philosophy calls for new and creative projects in order to engage with the contemporary world and address current philosophical issues. Robert Neville in his ‘New Projects in Chinese Philosophy’ (forthcoming, The Pluralist 5:2) suggests several new directions for Chinese philosophy. Welcoming other innovative projects in Chinese philosophy, we would like to use the following suggestions by Neville as a starting point in our call for papers. Papers should be restricted to 3,500 words.

    1. How can Chinese philosophy address first-order philosophical issues of our own time directly and explicitly?
    2. How do we read the history of Chinese philosophy with a new eye, not filtered through the lenses of attempts to find an authoritative past? What other thinkers or schools could contribute to the contemporary philosophical discourse?
    3. What is portable from the Chinese past into the present philosophical discussions? How do we rethink the portability of classical Chinese philosophy into the global context?
    4. How can Chinese philosophy contribute to the contemporary discussion of cosmogony — the arising of the cosmos?
    5. How can Chinese philosophy contribute to the contemporary philosophical understanding of nature, given what science is showing us in the fruitful reductionistic ways of science?
    6. How do we expand on the rich Chinese understanding of the function of ritual in society to the following aspects: the contemporary scientific discussion of human origins, the mutual engagement of the world cultures with their own philosophies, and the analysis of global moral and political issues?

    Paper submissions and any inquiry concerning paper submissions should be sent to:

    Professor JeeLoo Liu
    Department of Philosophy
    Humanities Building 311
    California State University, Fullerton
    Fullerton, CA 92834

  9. I don’t know if anyone will notice this late addendum to the earlier conversation, but I was at a one-day conference over the weekend marking Tu Wei-ming’s 70th birthday and his retirement from Harvard, and one of the speakers was Bob Neville, giving a version of the paper discussed in this thread (which I had not heard before). I thought that he made project 5, “philosophical cosmology,” sound rlelvant and important. Roughly, it is one of the core projects of metaphysics: how to understand our universe, given what science has told us. The issue he focused on was the relation between fact and value, suggesting that Chinese traditions can contribute to a way of thinking that is different from seeing value as somehow reduced to nature. He remarked that while many say that Chinese traditions empahsize ethics, it is important to recognize that for many of these traditions, at least, the ethical is rooted in or contextualized by a particular understanding of the universe.

    His remarks on “philosophical cosmogony” were also interesting. The issue, as he put it, is “how can there be a cosmos, as represented to us by physicists’ equations?” He described three different views — created by God, arising from primordial fullness, and arising from nothing through fundamental creativity — and argued briefly that the last, which he saw as dominant in Chinese traditions, was the most satisfactory one (no regress). This sort of issue certainly has been a major concern of many philosophical traditions around the world…and the way he’s put it, it’s clear he’s not trying to deny science its proper role. Big metaphysics may not be the most flourishing branch of philosophy in many US philosophy departments today, but I’m not sure that what Neville is talking about is “premodern,” as suggested on this thread.

    Finally, one other thing. Another speaker at the conference was Michael Sandel, whose course on Justice is wildly popular at Harvard and has been made into a pbs miniseries. His talk focused on tensions between responsibilities to kin and those to the community and/or impersonal justice…and he supplemented his usual cases (drawn from recent US events) with discussion of some of the famous conflict cases from the Analects and Mencius. It was nice to see an eminent Western philosopher grappling with the implications of the Chinese cases, and — in part through the subsequent Q & A — seeing that there were sides to the Confucian analyses that he had not fully appreciated at first. A step in the right direction!

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