Teaching Chinese Philosophy as a Way of Life

Next Fall I am planning on teaching a first-year seminar–the first time I’ll ever have taught a course just for first-year students–called “Philosophy as a Way of Life.” The title comes from Pierre Hadot’s wonderful book, which we’ll read some of, and the idea comes in part from past classes I have taught about the “sagehood” ideal. I want to offer comparative perspectives on what it might mean to take seriously some sort of “philosophical life,” partly as a way of myself thinking more about whether philosophy in our day and age can be anything more than a classroom activity. Of course I was intrigued by our discussion here a while back about the idea of “gongfu” as philosophy. I am also interested in James Miller’s new book Examined Lives, and wonder about using biographies of Chinese philosophers as well. This leads me to my first question:

  • Does anyone have suggestions about biographies of Chinese philosophers? There are various alledgedly biographical bits in many of the texts, of course, and that may turn out to be a good approach. But I wonder about other options.

I don’t really have a clear sense of what I think about these matters right now–that is, about whether philosophy can provide a distinctive kind of life today, and if so, whether this life is worth pursuing. Another of my motivations for the class is the worry that because it is so manifestly a purely ivory-tower concern, “philosophy” is not an apt category for Confucianism today; many who make this charge would also say that to the degree one is “just” an academic philosopher, one is not really a Confucian (and they often offer Mou Zongsan as a case in point). So a related question concerns what it means today to take Confucianism as a way of life. Another question, then:

  • Other than Rodney Taylor’s book on Okada Takehiko, can you think of any books on living a Confucian life today?

Other than these two questions, I’d be happy to hear any ideas about how you might teach such a class, or what your thoughts are on the kinds of issues I have raised. Thanks!

20 replies on “Teaching Chinese Philosophy as a Way of Life”

  1. Hi Steve,

    Funny enough, I am retooling my freshman level Intro course for the Fall, and am considering using the Miller book myself (I wrote a blog post about this some time ago). I also would want to add something about Confucius (to add Eastern diversity), and in addition I’d like to add a woman philosopher for gender diversity (Miller’s book has none, which is not good).

    In any event, since I’ve only superficially thumbed through the book at this point (I will read it over the summer), I have no solid ideas on how to go about using it, but this thread will help me to grab some ideas, and some possible ideas for the Confucius chapter, so thanks for posting this.

  2. I think I understand what you’re getting at, but it’s hard to think of answers/suggestions. I consider myself to take a somewhat philosophical approach to life, to look at various experiences and goings on from a more philosophical standpoint, but I’m not sure that’s the same as taking philosophy as a way of life.

  3. Hi Chris — Cool. Hopefully we’ll come up with something!

    Hi Scott — One possibility is that taking philosophy as a way of life means being a professional philosopher, but I’m not sure that is necessary or sufficient for the kind of thing that we’re talking about. Two possible examples might be Marcus Aurelius and Wang Yangming: both lived lives full of demanding activities, but we might make a case that both tried to take philosophy (as they understood it) as a way of life? So then we’d need to understand what that really meant, in each of their cases, and ask whether there are corresponding possibilities available to us today.

  4. As an outsider (I research mainly in the field of Indian philosophy and within it of linguistics and epistemology and I do not know any Chinese), I would suggest that the definition of philosophy is ambiguous and that –if I were at your place– I would start by challenging the students to define and/or problematize it. In this way, you can pave the way for a non-specialised understanding of philosophy as an Examined Life, tracing it back to the pre-Socratic thought, through Socrates, Hepicurus, Seneca, Montaigne… and in China. I would also add hints about the political value of an examined life (e.g., M.K. Gandhi). I really look forward to read about the feedback you got.

  5. I agree that one of our topics is going to have to be “philosophy” itself. Self-examination is certainly an aspect of the Confucian tradition (e.g., see Analects 1:4), but I wonder if it is as central as it is in the Socratic tradition.

    By the way, looking at your Blog (which is fascinating) led me to Amod Lele’s blog, where I happened onto this post about playing a game in which one acts out virtuous (and not-so-virtuous) roles…a topic not unrelated to the present one, and quite thought-provoking!

  6. Hi, Steve. I’ve tried this sort of approach with varying levels of success. I don’t use biography but instead the handbooks themselves, so to speak.

    One thing that worked phenomenally well for me was a “living philosophy” assignment. Most basically, the students had to select one of the philosophers we’d covered, come up with a coherent (and accurate!) way of applying the philosopher’s insights, then do their best to LIVE that way for a full week. After, they’d write a follow up report that would present both what they’d interpreted the “way of life” to entail and critique (often by way of the problems they’d run into either in applying the ideas or in consequence of applying the ideas).

    I had some great papers from this. Most memorably: an ex-gang member who tried to live Seneca’s “On Anger” and completely revised his own ideas about anger (to the point that he was giving copies of Seneca to his friends!); an Honors student who tried Zhuangzi and painfully realized her own deep inability to be “useless” and less commanded by grades and status-seeking; several students who tried to follow the reduction of desires and emphasis on simplicity in Epicurus and Lucretius only to find themselves wildly anxious and upset by the effort not to pursue their usual consumer activities. In a variation on this, I’ve sometimes given timely assignments according to holidays – e.g., having them use Lucretius on love to critique Valentine’s Day or making them try out filial piety over Thanksgiving trips home (which, by the way, they have almost all claimed made the holidays more enjoyable).

    What’s been striking to me in all this is that the students typically come away from it taking the philosophies *much* more seriously and their critiques are far more nuanced. They also seem to have a real increase of critical consciousness about their own patterns of behavior. Not all philosophers work well for this sort of project, but I’ve had success with Socrates (via the Apology), Epicurus and Lucretius, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, the Analects, Zhuangzi, Mencius, and Dogen.

  7. Hello Steve,

    This is a really valuable thread; I’ll have to try some of the things that Amy shared, in my own classes. Just wanted to mention — or remind — in a comparative vein, Elizabeth Anderson’s study of Mill in: “John Stuart Mill and Experiments in Living,” Ethics 102 (1991): 4-26. Here’s the Abstract for it: Mill thought that we learn about the good through experiments in living. This paper argues that Mill viewed his own early life as an experiment in living that revealed the superiority of his conception of the good over Bentham’s. Bentham’s quantitative hedonistic psychology could neither explain Mill’s youthful depression nor help him overcome it. But Mill’s qualitative theory of pleasures, grounded in a hierarchy of sentiments and a plurality of nonhedonic values, could. Theories of the good can be experimentally tested because they imply empirical claims about what lives living up to them are like.

    • That’s a great example! It suggests a warning against overuse of a focus on analytic definitions, though such a focus can be extremely helpful in getting beginning students to start to think for themselves. (One shows them that words such as “paint” are surprisingly hard to define and that the students are capable of thinking toward increasingly better definitions by applying certain techniques; and one applies the lesson to trickier words.)

  8. A friend passed on this information, which I thought I would share on the blog:

    You might look into the “Reacting to the Past” pedagogy? It is a role-playing pedagogy developed at Barnard to teach public speaking and argumentation skills. Many Honors Colleges around the country use the pedagogy with their students. They have various modules (i.e. games created around historical “core texts” and specific historical events), and one of them is based on Confucianism, or rather, neo-Confucianism. As I recall, it is called “Crisis Succession of the Wanli Emperor” (in the Ming Dynasty). The core text they use is the Analects. However, I know that Daniel Gardner was involved in constructing that module, and he recently came out with a “Four Books” reader that looks to me like it would fit well with that game. In the game, students play the part of government ministers (and others) trying to resolve the succession crisis by arguing on Confucian (and perhaps) other grounds about what should be done.

    Let me add (in my own voice): I wonder if this module incorporates 1587: A Year of No Signficance, by Ray Huang? One of my all-time favorite books, it does a terrific job of getting readers into the worlds of various important actors in the late-Ming.

  9. If one starts, as many of us do, thinking of “philosophy” as a kind of inquiry (say, the inquiry into questions that are very general, prima facie very important, and such that there is not enough consenus on the field to justify society in certifying anyone as an authority on the question) and then tries to imagine what one might mean by “philosophy as a way of life,” two answers that come soon to mind are: (a) devoting one’s life to philosophical inquiry, and (b) doing one’s best to live as one’s philosophical views recommend. And then there’s (aa) devoting the non-academickish side of one’s life to philosophical inquiry, and (aab) using (b) as a way of carrying out (aa), which means that the views one is trying to live by are views one might not fully accept, as in the experiments Amy and Mill describe.

    Here are some thoughts about all that.

    1. Some parts of philosophy seem, at least at first glance, to fall by the wayside in (aa), (b), and (aab), such as metaphysics and ontology.

    2. Wisdom might suggest some limitations to the extent to which one is trying to live by views one does not accept; but such limitations might damage the experiment.

    3. The conception of philosophy I cited above, in parentheses, may seem out of harmony with the idea that one should base some of one’s philosophical views largely on the authority of others. But (a) society and tradition do seem to have great authority on the topic of how, in broad strokes, one is to act; so is this topic not part of philosophy? But is it not the main sort of thing one might experiment with?

    4. And (b) is it part of Confucianism to think that society/tradition can indeed recognize and so certify authorities on central questions about how to live? In what respects does Confucianism support and oppose free experimentation in ethics?

    5. How might one, for a class, carve the conceptual space around an idea of “philosophy as a way of life” in such a way as not to allude to the dichotomy between propositions and actions?

    • Hi Bill, I’m not exactly sure what you have in mind by (5). Apropos the relation between (a) and (b), it’s relevant that Hadot thinks of socratic dialectic very much as something one DOES: it is a practice, part of a way of life, a “spiritual exercise,” and not just (as we might be tempted to see it) words on paper. Thus the importance of the dialogue form to express it. (And thus various openings to thinking about the significance of the forms in which Chinese philosophy is expressed.)

    • Hi Steve.

      There’s a wonderful carving somewhere, from centuries ago, showing Plato and Aristotle face to face. Aristotle is pointing to a passage in a book, which he holds facing Plato. Plato is using his hands to frame Aristotle’s face so as to say, “But how does it seem to YOU?” — Because it’s easier than getting hold of Hadot’s book, I’ll try to speculate about the potential value of Socratic inquiry as a spiritual (or whatever) exercise: It surely trains the powers of thought and rhetoric, and probably the virtue of respect. There are complications about humility and deception.

      I wonder what forms you have in mind. I think of ritual, the strenuously terse saying (to be tried out), the dismissive rhetorical question, the intensive study of classics, and tendentious commentary on classics.

      I wonder if there is a certain aiming at the mortification of the mind (not necessarily a bad thing). And I wonder how much of the differences between early Confucianism and me and today’s students has to do with the technologies of language.

      But oops, I’m thinking “Confucianism” and you said “Chinese philosophy.”

      (Digression: I think there’s a big difference between taking Confucianism seriously and taking Confucian philosophers seriously.)

      As for my question (5): it’s not a very precise question at all. I was just asking if there might be a radically different way of looking at things than what I laid out. For example, one might start with a different conception of philosophy, as the “love of wisdom.” But if you ask me what wisdom is, what comes naturally to me is to start by dividing it up, into theoretical and practical, and into knowing what to do and actually doing it; and thus I would come back quickly to the same ideas I set out above.

    • Oh, Amazon is letting me read much of A. Davidson’s intro to Hadot’s book, and it suggests that the Socratic exercise Hadot has in mind is the exercise not of the Socratizer, but of the interlocutor/victim.

    • Hi Bill — I don’t think so. Do you have access to p. 20 of the Introduction, for instance? What matters is the “practical” dimension of dialogue — that one is teaching (or learning), that one is trying to convince the other. So it applies to both. This makes the activity, says Hadot, into a “struggle with oneself” rather than just a “theoretical and dogmatic account.”

    • I was reading too fast. I do have p. 20. But what emerges for me now is that what Hadot is talking about might not fit my image of what Socrates did, and maybe Davidson is talking at once about a number of very different kinds of conversation to be found in Plato’s dialogues and/or imagined by taking kinds of conversation we find there and imagining them being made symmetrical or even internal to one person. But I’m probably still reading too fast.

  10. Regarding terse sayings – take the Golden Rule, for example: “Treat others as you would want to be treated.” There might be a big difference between the right answers to these two questions:

    A. “What does a person do who lives by that saying?”
    B. “What kinds of action constitute treating others as one would want to be treated?”

    Too briefly, that’s because someone who tries to live by that saying will tend to use a certain kind of “charity” in interpreting it, which isn’t called for by B.

    Interestingly, that might mean that the result of an experiment in (A) is not illuminating about (B).

  11. As far as actual biographies of Chinese philosophers, Feng Youlan’s autobiography, The Hall of Three Pines, has been translated into English. That’s the only complete biography that comes to mind. I think I have seen an article somewhere which is basically a mini-biography of Mou Zongsan, though I don’t know that it’s particularly interesting.

    Given the backlash against the professionalization of academic Confucianism, it’s an interesting topic, but I doubt any of that material is translated.

    • Hi David, Good ideas, thanks! Now that you mention it, it occurs to me that there are a couple things translated concerning the professionalization of philosophy and Mou Zongsan:

      Zheng, Jiadong. (2005). Between History and Thought: Mou Zongsan and the new Confucianism that Walked Out of History. Contemporary Chinese Thought, 36:2, 49-66.

      Zheng, Jiadong. (2005). Mou Zongsan and the Contemporary Circumstances of the Rujia. Contemporary Chinese Thought, 36:2, 67-88.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.