As promised, I have some remarks on the continuation of the issue that Carine Defoort broaches and that Rein Raud has responded to in a published discussion between the two of them (Philosophy East and West 56:4, 2006). It’s an issue about the demarcation of philosophy and what it means, and has meant, to call something “Chinese philosophy.” As Defoort has pointed out both in her original piece and in her follow-up discussion with Raud, it is puzzling how to understand ‘Chinese’ as an adjective that goes beyond mere historical-geographic placement, since “If philosophy were considered universal in its claims, as positive science is, the adjective would create a contradictio in terminis: there would be no ‘Chinese philosophy’ as there is no ‘Greek science'” (PEW 56:4, 628). Other disciplines, or endeavors, that presume universal scope could be added to the discussion: “Chinese math,” “Chinese logic,” “Chinese chemistry,” and so on. If ‘Chinese’ merely denotes the geographic placement of the texts and figures that are targeted, then it would seem like there is no separate discipline of Chinese philosophy, just philosophy and philosophers located in China at various times.
What’s really the issue here? As I understand Rein Raud, the issue is really about how philosophy as a discipline ought to conceive of itself in the globalized era. Parochialism threatens to make philosophy “able only to reproduce itself but not to evolve” (ibid, 620). Raud argues that a reasonable self-examination by philosophers would involve an important aspect: construction of “a more abstract external definition that would determine the social status and the role of philosophy vis-a-vis other cultural practices, such as religion, science, or literature” (621). Backing up a bit, here’s Raud’s internal/external definition contrast: an internal definition “would try to characterize philosophy as a mode of thinking — from within, so to say” whereas an external one “would describe the mechanisms at work in a sociocultural context that assign the status of philosophy to certain texts, authors, or schools of thought” (620).
Raud thinks that in fact there are criteria already implicitly in place in the Western intellectual tradition that express an external definition of philosophy, criteria that Raud thinks are fulfilled pretty well by the tradition of Chinese thought. He finds that there are roughly six such criteria (621-22):
- The individuality of thoughts is recognized. Views are articulated by identifiable personages, not attributed to divine revelation or received wisdom of folkloric origin (even if the aim of the views would be to explicate these).
- Whatever symbolic prestige philosophy has, it derives from its alleged explanatory power, the capacity to clarify the nature of things on the most abstract level (which is not the case with literature).
- Philosophy is dialogical. A philosophical work addresses others and is addressed by others, and this dialogical character is usually inherent also in the process of transmission of philosophical knowledge, which leads to the formation of schools (such as Neo-Kantianism), which do not strictly correspond to particular institutions (such as Cambridge University).
- Philosophy is cumulative. If a work has entered the corpus of philosophy, it will also stay there and may be considered productive regardless of paradigm changes (which is not really the case with science).
- The guild of philosophers normally claims independence from worldly powers and even a certain superiority to them, at least to advise and criticize, which is again derived from their allegedly deeper understanding of the nature of things.
- Philosophy is socially tolerant. Even though it may strive to attain what we think of as philosophical truth, a variance in views does not invite institutional punishment (which is not the case with religion). Philosophers have been burned at the stake — but not by other philosophers.
Raud’s goal here is to provide something like an uncontroversial definition according to which “the Western philosophical tradition meets these conditions in its entirety, while phenomena that are not considered part of it do not” (622). It isn’t meant to be normative or stipulative but largely descriptive I think. The strength of Raud’s account is that, as he argues, much of the Chinese tradition that we’ve come to think of as philosophical, also fits the criteria.
As it turns out Raud is the constructive, optimistic party to the discussion. Defoort’s response to Raud’s suggestions is long, repeating and elaborating on the points in her original essay. It is, in some ways, more pessimistic ultimately, as Raud notices in his response to her response. Briefly, I think Defoort focuses mainly on two sociological aspects of both the contemporary philosophical community in China and the Western one.
On the one hand, Defoort argues that since Hu Shih and Feng Yulan, the philosophical community in China has in general tended simply to assume “the legitimacy of Chinese philosophy” — or perhaps silently to ignore the issue. (What issue? The issue of, in the words of Feng Yulan that Defoort cites, whether “the philosophy of Chinese philosophers amounts to nothing, that China has no philosophy” (636).) She concludes that a “conclusive argument” for its legitimacy still has not been provided, to match the confidence and emotional commitment that the Chinese intellectual community has in it.
On the other hand, when Defoort turns to the Western community, her analysis turns more overtly sociological, couching it in terms of tribalism. According to her account there is a sort of jealous guardianship of philosophy in the West, one of the expressions of which is the stout resistance of academic departments to recognize Chinese philosophy as philosophically worthy of staffing (though some of this has been overcome). The rhetoric of her analysis is sometimes amusing — intentionally, I suspect (642):
…we tend to forget that philosophy is a “love” affair that one has with “wisdom.” Love affairs are not always as innocent as the lifelong fascination with one’s partner: they make philosophers jealous, uncertain, and unfair toward others. … It is easy to recognize the threat posed by the enormous Chinese corpus of texts to the average Western professor, who will never master its difficult scripts. Like a jealous husband, he rejects the Chinese rival without knowing him.
More somberly, Defoort concludes on this note (ibid):
Of course, rational arguments and historical data, as presented by Raud and a large group of contemporary Chinese scholars, retain their relevance, as long as one respects their limits. The silence surrounding the disagreement, the relative inefficiency of arguments, and the emotional commitment to the topic suggest that something crucial is being left out: the uncomfortable predicament of being attached to something that one has no access to. Although increasing cultural contacts may allow Western and Chinese scholars to become more familiar with each other, and thus perhaps — not necessarily — to understand and appreciate each other better, there will always be some attachment to tribal habits, as there is to one’s own children. The lack of a perfect mutual understanding may be counterbalanced by some understanding of why we do not totally understand each other.
A quick reaction: I’m not sure I’m convinced by the tribalism analysis — i.e. roughly, that the Western intellectual community has a kind of “special” proprietary, arational attachment to philosophy as, say, a biological parent has to a child (beyond an attachment that one might cultivate toward an adopted child?). There’s something Mencian, and unconvincing, in Defoort’s analysis: tribal/familial attachment will likely carry the day, or something like that.
Philosophers can seem proprietary — just ask a philosopher what she thinks about professional ethics courses being taught by non-philosophers, or what she thinks about discussions of truth in English or Comp Lit departments — but I don’t think such attitudes are best explained from a sociological point of view. Rather, it is the nature of the philosophical endeavor, or the seeking-for-truth-endeavor more generally, to be universal in its aspirations — something Defoort explicitly acknowledges. Given such aspirations, what may seem like jealous attempts at ownership may be better understood as an unwillingness to let the boundaries of concepts become so sloppy that truth-analyses become impossible. That’s very abstract, but I’m a philosopher.