Philosophy Encyclopedias and Chinese Philosophy

One of the things I subscribe to in Google Reader, but almost never look at, is a feed from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy listing new or updated articles. Why am I subscribed to this? I have no idea. But yesterday I clicked on it, and started to scroll back through the new stuff posted there over the last months. Increasingly, I found myself wondering: how come none of these concern Chinese philosophy? A fair number dealt with figures or concepts from Indian or Tibetan philosophy, but not until I got all the way back to Dec 6, 2010 did I find a mention of China. That’s when Kwong-loi Shun updated his article on Mencius. You want the most recent new article on Chinese philosophy? That would be October 1, 2009, when Alan Chan posted one on Neo-Taoism.

One possibility is that occurred to me is that the SEP already deals well with China, and the comparatively large amount of activity concerning India is about catching up or filling in huge gaps? A scan of the existing and planned topics, though, makes it look like there are few articles on China, and few planned. For example, neither “Neo-Confucianism” nor any Neo-Confucians are included, nor are any twentieth century Chinese philosophers on the list. Chinese Buddhism doesn’t fare well, either. I’m not sure how the SEP works, but presumably the first folks to ask about this are the two subject editors for Chinese philosophy, Kwong-loi Shun and Chad Hansen. (Incidentally, “Buddhist philosophy” is not a subject on this list, so presumably any Chinese Buddhism would be covered by the China-subject editors.)

It’s eye-opening to compare the SEP with the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The IEP has a healthy list of China-related entries, including entries on Buddhist and twentieth-century topics. I also note the webpage that China-area editor Jeff Richey maintains, listing topics that are in production and those for which he is actively seeking an author.

As I say, I don’t know much about how the SEP and IEP work, but at the very least, the SEP — which has evolved into an important resource in philosophy — leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to Chinese philosophy.

11 thoughts on “Philosophy Encyclopedias and Chinese Philosophy

  1. Yes, you need to contact the subject editors with any complaints, suggestions, critiques, and so forth. I have been doing this virtually from the beginning of SEP (over 100 letters of correspondence to the general editor, area editors, and authors of entries) and have found, for the most part, that they are responsive. I pestered Ed Zalta for some time about getting folks to pen entries on non-Western philosophy and, at his request, sent along some names of possible subject editors (some of which eventually took on the task). At the time, there was simply ignorance on the part of the founding editors about those who were experts in the various fields who could, in turn, serve as editors for entries related to non-Western philosophies. I’m proud of the fact that many of the editors and authors have often take on board my suggestions: titles for the bibliography, missing material worthy of coverage, or possible entries. I suggested, for example, the entry on (the problem of) “dirty hands,” as well as the author of same. Some time they disagree with my proposals: I’ve long wanted an entry on “presumption,” but they don’t believe it’s warranted. Some of my suggestions have been acknowledged by authors (e.g., the entries on environmental ethics and ancient atomism), others have not: it’s of course flattering when they are but I’m pleased if my suggestions are in fact incorporated whether or not they’re also acknowledged. My latest criticism was on the entry on emotion in Indian philosophy which neglected important philosophical discussions from the aesthetic traditions in India. I also recently alerted the authors of the entries on “civil disobedience” and on “economics and social justice” of titles missing from their bibliographies. Another letter to the author of the entry on civil disobedience on why the statement that “[a] revolutionary like Gandhi was happy to go to jail for his offences, but felt no fidelity toward the particular legal system in which he acted,” was misleading iif not simply incorrect on several counts. That letter did not receive a reply.

  2. The following is fairly representative (from 2006) of the type of correspondence I’ve had with authors and editors:

    Dear Professor Adler,

    Although I only skimmed through your entry in the SEP on the epistemological problems of testimony, it looks quite thorough and very interesting, and I look forward to reading it later with the care it deserves.

    My main reason for writing, however, is to let you know that testimony, under the rubric ‘shabda-pramana’ (verbal testimony as a valid means of knowledge; diacritics unavailable, hence the ‘h’ in shabda), is treated throughout the history of Indian philosophy, and may have something to contribute to Western philosophical discussions of same. It might be nice to at least acknowledge the existence of such material in your entry even if you’re not going to cover it (or specify the circumscription of the entry to ‘Western philosophy’). This would be yet another small step beyond the parochialism and provincialism (and, dare I say, cultural neo-imperialism?) that continues to afflict some quarters of contemporary philosophy in the West (see, for instance, the enclosed articles, one in Word, the other pdf.).

    I can send you a basic list of titles if perchance you are interested.

    Best wishes,

    Dear Professor O’Donnell,

    Thanks for your note. I agree: In the closing ‘omission’ section I should have been explicit that I was leaving out a large area (though I do mention some articles in the Matilal and Chakrabarti volume, though only the Western ones). Could you send along the citations you mentioned, and that for the articles? My piece is to be revised in 4 years, and I can refer to them at that time, if nothing can be done sooner.

    Regards, Jonathan

    Dear Jonathan (if I may),

    It was very considerate of you to reply to my concerns. I’ve enclosed a short list of references, as well as a list of introductory/background titles.

    Best wishes,

    Dear Jonathan,

    I later noticed you asked for citation of articles, which I can’t now provide, as I don’t now have the Matilal and Chakrabarti volume, although I do have in my notes that Mohanty’s essay: ‘Is There an Irreducible Mode of Word-Generated Knowledge’ appeared on pp. 29-49. I also should have listed these two books:

    Bartley, Christopher J. The Theology of Ramanuja. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002.

    Lipner, Julius. The Face of Truth: A Study of Meaning and Metaphysics in the Vedantic Theology of Ramanuja. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1986.

    This is not an area I’m presently working in (although I do plan on composing a dictionary for Indian philosophy in the near future), as I’m focused on Islamic Studies and legal theory research and writing, thus I’m not aware of the latest relevant journal articles. If need be, I think Jonardon Ganeri (Dept. of Philosophy, University of Liverpool) would be most helpful for latest references: On Ganeri’s personal website it says he’s coming out with a new edition of Semantic Powers titled Artha: Testimony and the Theory of Meaning.

    OK? I hope this helps.

    All the best,

    Thanks for the references, Patrick. I’ve run by the editors adding in the last section “Omissions,” where I list 3 omissions, something like:
    “Fourth, there is no discussion of approaches to testimony in Indian Philosophy. (The Matilal-Chakrabarti 1994 volume is a valuable attempt to bridge gaps between contemporary Western and Indian accounts.)”
    They think that’s OK, but would like me to wait until the general revision. Once I start working on the revision, I’ll determine how much more I can say about the subject, which might lead me to omit the above. But it’s evident that I cannot do the subject justice, so that it might be advisable for you to recommend to the editors a separate article on this topic.
    Regards, Jonathan

  3. I should note that the above correspondence it atypical in one way: when I’m addressed as “professor,” I usually inform the correspondent (and I do this with my students too) that I’m not a professor, not even close, just a lowly adjunct instructor at a community college.

  4. Dear Patrick,

    Thanks for fighting the good fight!

    I think that Jonardon Ganeri is now one of the editors for the Indian area of the Stanford Encyclopedia and they have been adding a number of quality articles lately, with more to come.

    If you continue your discussion with Professor Adler and sending him suggestions, please consider my recent publication in History of Philosophy Quarterly on the role on Testimony in later Nyaya. It is a publication that is meant to be readable for non-specialists. (link is here:

  5. Matthew,

    Alas, Jonathan passed away in March of last year, but if I learn of the next author of the update, I’ll certainly mention it. Yes, Jonardon is one of the editors of Indian philosophy and, I agree, the articles have been first rate (assessed, that is, by my dim lights!). Did you see my list of English language titles for “Indic philosopy” at Ratio Juris? It’s not exhaustive, but I do hope to add to it at a later date. I look forward to reading your article. Best wishes, Patrick

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