Warp, Weft, and Way

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

Preview of Upcoming APA Newsletter on State of the Field

Amy Olberding, who is in the Philosophy Department at University of Oklahoma, has edited an APA Newsletter due out this Fall in which several people in my field address the state of the field, particularly with respect to Ph.D. training. Here’s the list of contributors: Stephen Angle, Roger Ames, Donald Munro, Justin Tiwald, Bryan Van Norden, David Wong, and myself. There are also two contributions from two department chairs giving their perspectives on the issues, Hugh Benson of Oklahoma and Leslie Francis of Utah.

In addition, Olberding has compiled a list of Ph.D. granting institutions in the U.S. who have faculty, in any department or program, who specialize in Asian philosophy. The list includes the names and disciplines of those faculty, so it should be very useful indeed for prospective graduate students. Olberding has also compiled the numbers and percentages of job listings for the past five years in the APA’s Jobs for Philosophers for non-Western specializations of various types. Yeoman service!

I’m not sure exactly when the issue will be out, but when it is, it should be available at this link. In the interim, I’ve pasted below about half of my contribution to the newsletter. Comments are welcome, of course. I’ll re-announce the link and welcome comments on the whole document once it is out.

(Also, I will be getting back to more philosophical/textual stuff soon; I’m just busy with beginning of term things–teaching one new course and two sections of a totally revamped intro!)

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Taking Stock: A State-of-the-Field Impression

Two years ago, I was struck by the possibility of an impending crisis in doctoral-level training for Chinese philosophy. Thanks to Brian Leiter’s posting of my concerns on his Leiter Reports blog, those who shared my concerns continued the discussion at a variety of levels. The invitation extended by Amy Olberding to contribute to this newsletter provides an excellent opportunity for me not only to take stock of my impressions of the state of the field two years thence, but also to discuss some important aspects of graduate training in Chinese philosophy that have come up in relevant discussions with colleagues since. Two caveats: First, I don’t pretend to know enough about the field of South Asian, or Indian, philosophy to have any informed impressions about “Asian” philosophy or “non-Western” philosophy; my comments here are limited to what I can say with relative confidence about Chinese philosophy specifically. Second, much of what I have to say is by way of impressions based on personal experience and conversation; so I’m sure there are empirical issues that I end up taking for granted which could and should be investigated better.

As far as I can tell, not much has changed with regard to the state of the field, at least institutionally speaking. A vacuum still exists here where very high-profile scholars have left their positions at the most highly regarded philosophy programs, either through retirement or lateral moves ultimately to Hong Kong (more about Hong Kong below). In that sense, the aspects of the field that concern me have not changed in the past two years, nor has there been any word, official or otherwise, that it will in the near future. The lone stalwart in terms of a Ph.D. program in philosophy, with high-profile scholars solidly in the field of Chinese philosophy (Roger Ames and Chung-ying Cheng), remains the University of Hawai’i. If not for Hawai’i there would be no well-established Chinese philosophy program right now, period. By “well-established” I mean one that has a relatively long track record of having productive faculty and training successful scholars in the field, and hence having an associated, high reputation. I should qualify this by saying that I’m thinking only of the past 30-40 years or so. In the course of conversation with others in the field, live and in blogs, I’ve faced two, related objections to what I have claimed about the field.

On the one hand, some have objected that there couldn’t really be a crisis-level problem here since, by my accounting, there really only ever were three such programs—Hawai’i, Stanford, and Michigan. But in fact, I think that makes the the loss of two of them much more prominent; and gaining back one or both of them would have proportionally significant impact.

On the other hand, some have objected more strongly, from the other direction: there couldn’t really be a crisis because there have always been, and continue to be, numerous well-established Ph.D. programs in the English speaking world in Asian literature, history, language, or other disciplines; and training in Chinese philosophy may be gained at them. Likewise, as others have chimed in, there are numerous Ph.D. level programs in the Chinese-speaking world that are well-established in my sense, though perhaps they either do not have or do not produce scholars who publish primarily, if at all, in English. But it is Chinese philosophy after all, why should I privilege English language scholarship? This is a formidable objection, or set of objections. I will not be able to respond to it to everyone’s satisfaction because the objection brings up issues about methodological and disciplinary differences that are not really appropriate to “resolve” as much as to let such differences exist. There are also sociologically contingent facts about philosophical inquiry and English, or European languages more generally, that are not necessarily binding but that are difficult to overcome. So, I’ll say what I can; I think the objection forces me to make certain concessions and qualifications but for the most part I stand by my impression of the vacuum at the top of my field.

It may seem parochial or imperialistic to think that scholarly training in Chinese philosophy has been centered in the United States, in philosophy departments more specifically. I don’t desire either of those epithets so I remain open to discussion that may change my mind. But my belief is based on what I, and some others with whom I’ve discussed this, regard as two important contemporary aspects of “the field” as we conceive it.

First, although Chinese philosophical literature may be approached from any number of disciplinary interests, a distinctively philosophical approach takes “truth-directed” engagement with the claims, tacit assumptions, and theories found in the literature to be primary. So, historical, linguistic, or cultural accuracy and plausibility of the interpretation one gives is important, but aiming for them is undertaken for the sake of the further activity of philosophical evaluation, assessment, or some philosophical use of the views one interprets. Such use may take the form for example of adoption, perhaps in some suitably modified form, as an ethical, political, or metaphysical view. Or, one may use the understanding of a view that is not a contemporary option but that is internally coherent, to gain some kind of understanding of the situated nature of a corresponding contemporary philosophical view; that kind of distancing via comparison might produce improvements to how one thinks about a contemporary view. Or, perhaps there are other philosophical uses in the offing. Minimally, a philosophical approach aims to provide a truth-assessable account of the literal meanings of the sentences in the text for some philosophical purpose or other. These are generally the approaches that have been taken by scholars trained at Hawai’i, Stanford, and Michigan in the philosophy programs there.

However, unless I have been meeting all the wrong people at AAAS meetings, scholars in other disciplines by and large do not find this sort of engagement with the literature interesting. Based on personal experience, I expect many to have mild to strong disdain for it (“Surely you don’t take any of Mencius’s arguments seriously, do you?” I’ve had one prominent historian say to me.) Because of this disciplinary difference, philosophical study of Chinese philosophy in, for example, the East Asian Languages and Cultures program at Columbia University will be very difficult to pursue with much enthusiasm on the part of the faculty currently active therein. Secondly, general philosophical training at a graduate level will also be very difficult to gain in such a department. Finally, it will be that much more difficult to gain employment within a philosophy department with such a degree and with the sorts of letters of recommendation one is likely to acquire. There may be exceptions and of course difficulties can be overcome; nonetheless, I think these considerations speak loudly on behalf of at least half of my claim—that study of Chinese philosophy has been and probably will continue to be centered, if at all, in philosophy departments.

But why think that the other half of the claim is true—that it has been centered in philosophy departments in the U.S. rather than, say, in China or Japan (which has produced some of the best Sinological work on philosophical texts)? This is a more complicated issue and I make the following points with varying levels of confidence. I am fairly confident that the aforementioned philosophical approach to the texts has nearly exclusively been written in English language publications. That is no accident; the style of analysis is one drawn from the approach favored by English speaking philosophers who specialize in the history of Western philosophy, particularly of Ancient Greek philosophy. There is a similar approach that is more prevalent in the contemporary Chinese-speaking world but that differs in important ways…

August 31st, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Comparative philosophy | 6 comments

6 Responses to Preview of Upcoming APA Newsletter on State of the Field

  1. Agui says:

    Based on personal experience, I expect many to have mild to strong disdain for it (“Surely you don’t take any of Mencius’s arguments seriously, do you?” I’ve had one prominent historian say to me.) Because of this disciplinary difference, philosophical study of Chinese philosophy in, for example, the East Asian Languages and Cultures program at Columbia University will be very difficult to pursue with much enthusiasm on the part of the faculty currently active therein

    If I’m understanding you correctly, approaches from departments other than philosophy take the material less “seriously”, meaning that they tend to see their task as one that does not engage the normative claims of the material; because, among other things, they deem these normative claims as irrelevant, incorrect, outmoded, etc. Is that correct?

    Reply
  2. Manyul Im says:

    Hi Agui; that’s my impression. It’s more methodologically motivated than that, of course. It is possible to think of the normative claims of the material as more important for indicating what is at stake for the authors of the text than for helping “us” to sort through our own philosophical issues. I’m pretty confident that that is what’s going on with most other Sinological disciplines than philosophy. What’s your impression?

    Reply
  3. Agui says:

    I suppose I should add that it seems that you’ve conflated “the field of Chinese philosophy” with “those in philosophy departments”. IMO it seems that the questions “What is Chinese philosophy?” and “Why do so few philosophy departments have faculty working in Chinese philosophy?” are perhaps better discussed as separate (yet interrelated) issues.

    In other words, I imagine we would agree that “the field of Chinese philosophy” extends beyond philosophy departments. I don’t think the work produced by someone that studied with Stalnaker at Indiana in the RS dept, for instance, would necessarily fall further outside the field of Chinese philosophy than the work of someone that studied with Hutton in Utah, although the former would probably not be working in a philosophy department. It seems that the question of scholars in philosophy departments proper that are capable of producing future scholars, is a subset in some regards of the question of the contours of Chinese philosophy. That two (hypothetical) scholars could do work on the same figure/issue with the same set of theoretical assumptions, yet be excluded from “the field” on the basis of departmental affiliation is disconcerting–and I think this says more about the structure of philosophy departments, than the field of Chinese philosophy. I’m not saying you’re making the claim for such exclusions (although I think a few lines could be read that way), but if the field of Chinese philosophy is those who have been trained from the handful of scholars (who used to be) at Stanford, Michigan, and Hawaii, then it seems more like a modern Daotong than a healthy construction of a field.

    Reply
  4. Manyul Im says:

    Excellent points, Agui. I think your example of Stalnaker points to a correction I should and would be happy to concede: that Religious Studies scholars approach figures and texts often in ways similar or identical to those trained in Philosophy departments. But I do mean to generalize and as a generalization, I think it is by and large true that the approach I describe is much more prevalent within Philosophy departments than in History, Comp. Lit., or Anthropology departments for example. But “the field” as you suggest, can be taken as too proprietary in my piece. Thanks for the help in clarifying things.

    Reply
  5. Agui says:

    Our posts must have overlapped, as I composed #3 before I saw #2.

    What’s your impression?

    I think there’s a difference between viewing the normative claims of Chinese authors as outmoded, and thereby not bringing them into dialogue with “our” philosophical problems; and believing that they are in fact relevant but not engaging them for one reason or another (such as simply enjoying trying to grapple with them descriptively). I think Kwong-loi Shun’s book on Mencius provides an excellent example of the latter.

    WIth that said, I do believe that there are those outside of philosophy departments that are, at the very least, of the latter mindset, if not directly engaging the normative issues themselves. Michael Puett’s (in an East Asian dept) most recent (co-authored) book Ritual and its Consequences , is an example of normative engagement. I believe Bob Neville’s recent book is also a similar attempt. With that said I find it striking that no mention to Boston has been made in any of the online conversations, given that Berthrong can read the primary material, Neville, by almost any definition of ‘philosopher’ would count as one (except of course the fact that he isn’t in a philosophy department), and part of Tu Weiming’s title is “professor of Chinese philosophy”. Going back to the original question, Brook Ziporyn I believe is another example.

    Reply
  6. Bill Haines says:

    Manyul, you write:

    “… a distinctively philosophical approach takes “truth-directed” engagement with the claims, tacit assumptions, and theories found in the literature to be primary. [The goal is] philosophical evaluation, assessment, or some philosophical use of the views one interprets. Such use may take the form for example of adoption, perhaps in some suitably modified form, as an ethical, political, or metaphysical view. Or, one may use the understanding of a view that is not a contemporary option but that is internally coherent, to gain some kind of understanding of the situated nature of a corresponding contemporary philosophical view; that kind of distancing via comparison might produce improvements to how one thinks about a contemporary view. Or, perhaps there are other philosophical uses in the offing. Minimally, a philosophical approach aims to provide a truth-assessable account of the literal meanings of the sentences in the text for some philosophical purpose or other.”

    Here I’ll list some “other philosophical uses.” It’s not that I think you disagree with any of this; it’s just that I haven’t made a contribution in a long time, and I couldn’t find any real objection to anything what you and Agui have said. But also these other uses are, I think, the more important ones for me.

    1. I’m not sure what contrast you have in mind in stressing “literal” meaning (cf: “People widen the way”; “To govern is to be straight”; “To hear the Way in the morning and die in the evening – that would be enough”). It seems to me that insofar as a sentence is not intended literally, a philosophical reader should not focus mainly on its literal meaning.

    2. Many sentences, such as “give first place to loyalty and good faith” (zhu zhong xin, 主忠信), should be evaluated not for their truth but for something else. If what these sentences do is what you call “making normative claims,” then you’ve already included this point.

    3. Western students of Chinese philosophy, or modern students of ancient Chinese philosophy, might learn from it some practices, aims, or (as Lee Yearly has emphasized) genres that might be worth adopting in our own philosophy.

    4. Western philosophers might want to study Chinese philosophy in part as a means to better mutual philosophical understanding across the waters, the better to join in conversation—not merely to consider claims that have already been made.

    Reply

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