Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy diversification project

Sor-hoon Tan and I are pleased to let you know that SEP is committed to developing more integrated entries that include perspectives from nonwestern philosophies. In the first instance, we’re seeking to provide cross-links between entries so that the Chinese philosophy entries don’t  stand alone as just that. 

One example would look like this:

Consequentialism (Walter Sinnott-Armstrong)

The entry should provide a reference to early consequentialist views in classical Chinese philosophy. Mohism, a rival of Confucianism, “formulated China’s first explicit ethical and political theories and advanced the world’s earliest form of consequentialism, a remarkably sophisticated version based on a plurality of intrinsic goods taken as constitutive of human welfare” (SEP “Mohism”)

Sections 3 (What is Good? Hedonistic vs. Pluralistic Consequentialisms), 5 (Consequences of What? Rights, Relativity, and Rules), and 6 (Consequences for Whom? Limiting the Demands of Morality) would especially benefit from a link to the Mohism entry.

The SEP entry on Mohism includes a comparative discussion of their consequentalism and Bentham and Mill’s versions. The Bentham and Mill entries should at the very least cross-reference this section (

Please email your suggestions to me (  We will do our best to incorporate the cross-links, bearing in mind the need to preserve their overall accessibility and readability.

If you send me your comments by 30th June 2020, I’ll compile a first set for the editors. Moving forward, we’ll think about how we can implement this exercise at periodic intervals.

Many thanks – Karyn and Sor-hoon


11 replies on “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy diversification project”

  1. One could indeed get the impression from the “Consequentialism” entry in the SEP and my own “Consequentialism” entry in the IEP that all the work in consequentialism that deserves current attention on the merits has been Western.

    It is important to recognize, though, that articles like these do not aim to survey the history of consequentialism (unless perhaps in a section of the bibliography). An article with that as its aim would of course have a place in an encyclopedia of philosophy, but it would be fundamentally different from these articles, and it is perhaps not the sort of thing a philosopher interested in consequentialism first wants or looks for.

    Rather, these two articles aim to survey the worthy and popular conceptual possibilities, with occasional reference to some prominent exponents of certain of those possibilities—especially those exponents who are active in current philosophical work on the topic, or are core reference points in current work. Mohism thus potentially merits mention in this kind of article insofar as Mohism is a prominent reference point in (worthy) recent consequentialist work (no matter where) – and of course I mean recent work in ethics, not recent work about ethicists. Failing such prominence, I think there should be some latitude for the author of an encyclopedia entry to recommend an idea as meriting consideration by philosophers, based on her judgment as a philosopher, even if the idea is not much noticed in current discussion.

    Of the three indented paragraphs in the comment just above, the second and third seem to me to be correct in principle, once the SEP begins to allow cross-referencing links in the text of SEP articles. (Have they said they would do so?) Whether these links would be among the dozen most apt in these places is another question.

    As for the first of the three paragraphs, it seems to me out of place. The SEP article, like the IEP article, makes no claim about the earliest this or that in the West or anywhere else. The claim would be off-topic for the article. My own bibliographical section on “Classic Works” omits all the earliest Western stuff: Plato, Epicurus, Lucretus, Berkeley, Hume, Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Paley, etc. None of those people gets a mention anywhere in the IEP article. In the SEP article only two of these people (Plato and Hutcheson) get brief passing references. No cross-references; no links in the list of “Related Entries” at the end.

    Whether Mohism’s consequentialism (as distinct from e.g. its epistemology?) is “remarkably sophisticated” as relevant to the “Consequentialism” article (i.e. not just remarkable in its day) is a judgment call in the area of the latitude for the “Consequentialism” author’s judgment. Not that the editors have no responsibility to supervise such judgments of merit; and perhaps the author is bound to respect the claim of the “Mohism” author as having the Encyclopedia’s imprimatur.

    Is it true that Mohism offers an implicit account of human welfare? I don’t know; I haven’t gone back to look at the text. But I wonder. A main feature of any field, and a well-known feature of the field of ethics, is the great theoretical sophistication required to account, theoretically, for what most people know in the area without the aid of theory. The Mozi lists ways of benefiting (利), but (according to my admittedly casual memory and a perusal of the “Mohism” article) does not otherwise mention human welfare. In consequentialist theory, “human welfare” appears mainly as a postulated theoretical ultimate on a topic where, in my personal opinion, postulating a theoretical ultimate is an error. Maybe Mohism’s correctness here is that it does not offer an account of that mythical object. But people were correct in that way before Mohism, even in speaking of benefitting.

    There may be a better way to characterize what in the Mozi’s consequentialism is especially worthy of the attention of people doing work in consequentialism—people trying to theorize ethics in a consequentialist manner, or criticizing such approaches.

    • Thanks for your comments, Bill. It is a tricky task navigating the detail to add the links appropriately and where they can be most helpful for general readers, without (i) crowding an entry; and (ii) providing superficial or tenuous links. This is why we’re seeking suggestions from the community.

      Your comments on the example are helpful – thank you. We’d also like comments on any relevant SEP entries that people in the WarpWeftandWay community have come across, and where you might have had the thought, “Why isn’t that relevant strand in Chinese philosophy mentioned here?”.

      Finally, on the note “Of the three indented paragraphs in the comment just above, the second and third seem to me to be correct in principle, once the SEP begins to allow cross-referencing links in the text of SEP articles. (Have they said they would do so?)”. Yes, definitely! Hence the open invitation, including to those who are authors of existing SEP articles, to send me comments by the due date.

  2. We’re not worried that by working such cross-references into entries like “consequentialism,” we’re letting the Western world dictate the terms of discourse? Or are we also going to add a reference to “Aristotle” in an entry on ren 仁? Will there be cross-references to Western analogues of 理學? 玄學? 實學?

    As an outsider, it’s easy for me to say this, but I think this willingness to submit to Western discursive terminology is one of the major reasons why Chinese philosophy remains marginalized in philosophy departments. It prevents China from being anything other than an occasionally interesting but ultimately inferior version of the West.

    My two cents.

    • I’m ambivalent about whether or not cross-referencing will reinforce the secondary status of Chinese philosophy. It seems like a good thing, but maybe there are hidden consequences.

      That said, I do agree with Paul that entries on crucial Chinese philosophy terms and ideas seem like a striking omission SEP. Most of the entries on non-Western philosophies are based around figures/schools of thought and non-Western traditions’ contributions to philosophical topics under a Western rubric (e.g., “Metaphysics in Chinese Philosophy”, “Science in Chinese Philosophy”, “Epistemology in Chinese Philosophy”). Building a repository of more issue- and topic-based entries on Chinese philosophy seems like a very promising way of improving the status of Chinese philosophy overall, and challenging the dominance of Western discursive structures. 仁 is a great candidate. 道 seems kind of obvious as well. 天 and 性 too perhaps. I’m sure we could think of many others.

      It’s worth mentioning though that nobody made these recommendations the last time Karen posted asking for suggestions for Chinese philosophy SEP entries, so I think Paul’s suggestion here is novel and important.

  3. Discussions of zhengming seem to be linked with Hume’s is-ought problem. Of course, even if I have got hold of something at all here, modern English-language scholars probably still differ as to the specific way in which the Chinese philosophers implement normativity vs descriptivity. So the “link” is rather complicated: as you noted above, Professor Lai, it would take time and effort to rework articles such that the relevance is illuminated, without either “crowding an entry or providing superficial or tenuous” comparisons between Hume and (for example) Xunzi. But that’s the difficulty of comparative philosophy, in the first place, right?

    Which brings me to another point entirely, a metacomment on this project. Certainly diversification is not a first-order goal of comparative philosophy, is it? As philosophers, we shouldn’t merely be seeking diversity for diversity’s sake, but because it actually brings about a better understanding of what is at stake in common for Chinese and (modern) Western philosophers. To that effect, my suggestion is that while this effort is undeniably a move in the right direction, it cannot be the end. Appending a few links to the ends of sections of whatever pages are related to each other can only leave the work of synthesizing the actual intellectual differences and similarities to the reader, and it would be the equivalent of paying lip service to cultural diversity. I would propose as a next step efforts to develop some entries or article sections which are dedicated to this ‘bridging’ work of comparison, such that each ‘subject’ (take Consequentialism on one hand, Mohism on the other) can link to *that* bridging section. I might also propose that the authors of both articles in my example collaborate to some extent, both having a hand in bridging the gap.

  4. Paul mentions the possibility of an entry on 仁. It’s an interesting idea.

    I wonder what are some of the main ideas or terms that are sort of distinctive to Chinese philosophy and not central to Western philosophy are foci of interest today for good Chinese philosophers in their philosophical work.

    (By “Chinese philosophers” I mean Chinese people doing philosophy in China, not people studying Chinese philosophy or trying to work out what sort of approach to Issue X would be in line with the Confucian tradition. Which is not to say that one couldn’t do philosophy in a way that relied on such work as a contributory tool.)

  5. I shouldn’t have said or meant “Chinese philosophers” above; “philosophers” is more to the point.

    I think the use of Western philosophical terms more than Chinese ones (by philosophers, and by people writing about Chinese philosophy in English) tends to support a view that Chinese philosophy (like Western literature), though it sometimes rewards the attention of philosophers qua philosophers, is generally inferior to Western philosophy at what the West means by philosophy, insofar as this latter names a project that can have a place in the academy.

    I’m not sure that that use of terms supports a view that the Chinese masters weren’t mainly focused on some project(s) other than what Western academic philosophers mean by philosophy (a separate question from whether they had an alternate project that belongs in the academy). Is a view on that topic widespread among Western or Anglophone philosophers?

    This all reminds me that I have to buy Paul’s new book.

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