Another Round on Chinese Thought as Philosophy

In case you missed it, Nicholas Tampio recently published a short piece in Aeon explaining why he thinks Confucius (among other non-Western thinkers) should not be regarded as a philosopher, with implications for the philosophy curriculum and the makeup of philosophy faculties. This is a response to the recent New York Times piece by Jay Garfield and Bryan Van Norden.  Tampio and Van Norden subsequently exchanged tweets on the topic. Amy Olberding replies thoroughly and with humor here, and Ethan Mills responds on behalf of Indian philosophy here.

Where to begin?

There are no arguments in Tampio’s piece that we haven’t heard before, but I welcome it. What has been most maddening about this debate is that, until five or six years ago, it barely existed except in informal, fleeting conversations of little consequence, or in one-sided arguments from the Chinese side that were met with silence. It is a relief to have something like fixed success criteria from the other side, with at least the rhetorical suggestion that it would have real-world implications if (1) Chinese thought could meet those criteria or (2) one could justify revising them. Tampio and other critics do us a favor when they make on-the-record arguments and sign their names to them.

(1) So let’s consider whether Chinese thought could meet the proposed criteria. Tampio says all philosophy must be either Plato or footnotes to Plato. The past century of Chinese philosophy is footnotes to Plato, much of it explicitly engaging with Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel, offering novel accounts and defenses of philosophical intuitions, idealism, democracy, rights, and the foundations of ethics. Done.

(2) But do we really want to insist that all philosophy after Plato be his footnotes? No. Plato established the rules, but it’s a sure bet that some of the rules are fundamentally flawed. He got everyone playing chmess when the game that really matters is chess, or go. Suppose it was a mistake to distinguish between essential and accidental properties. Suppose he makes subtler, chmessy assumptions that he and all of his footnotes take for granted. Philosophy wouldn’t be what it is—and it wouldn’t thrive—if it didn’t engage with those who propose different rules. And even if the source material doesn’t have its origins in Plato that doesn’t rule out subsequently drawing on the tradition of Plato to enrich the discussion. If it did then there would be no medieval European philosophy, arguably no philosophy of science, and the tradition of Plato itself may not have survived.

We’ve been given some pragmatic arguments for restricting philosophy to Plato’s footnotes. Tampio suggests that the push to include Islamic, Indian, and Chinese philosophers imperils funding for philosophy departments. But the truth is exactly the opposite. The more philosophy resists inclusion of non-Western traditions, the more likely that it will be painted as too parochial to support. Ordinary philosophy departments are under enormous pressure to include non-Western thinkers, and that pressure will increase for the foreseeable future. If you, as a department chair, are told that you can’t hire a third M&E person until you hire someone in Chinese or Indian philosophy, or detect that you won’t get support for a third M&E hire unless the hire can teach Chinese or Indian philosophy as well, what would you do? Perhaps you could invoke a disciplinary consensus against inclusion, but good luck finding a consensus about the scope of philosophy amongst philosophers, and good luck persuading your dean with it.

And besides, there’s a very plausible case for seeing it as a moral imperative to bring non-Western thinkers into the dialogue, a case that is likely to seem obvious twenty years from now. Who wants to risk being another villain in the history books?

23 replies on “Another Round on Chinese Thought as Philosophy”

  1. After reading Mr. Tampio’s article I cannot help but see him as that old man Cephalus whom he referenced, the old man whom he and Plato criticized since he “likes things the way they are and does not want to wrestle on the terrain of ideas.” In the face of a changing world and changing terrain of international philosophical dialogue, Mr. Tampio certainly wants things to remain just the way they are.

  2. One could begin almost anywhere. For example: Plato’s Republic is pretty much universally agreed not to be the beginning of philosophy or of Western philosophy, even if philosophy is defined in Tampio’s way. Especially if it’s defined in Tampio’s way. It’s a commonplace that in stark contrast with earlier works, the main dramatic action in the Republic is not “contentious dialogue,” it’s exposition masquerading as dialogue.

    And (apropos of Tampio’s selective confusing of dialogue with the advocacy of dialogue) the book advocates that an elite of experts lie to the broad public about the basic conditions of life, exaggerating the connection between family and state. (See also this .)

  3. Justin’s question, “Where to begin?” seems exactly right. Here is a slightly oblique direction from which I begin, in my own reaction to recent debates about what is and isn’t philosophy, including now, Tampio’s piece:

    Coincidentally, and perhaps ironically, Tampio’s home institution is a prominently Jesuit one. It was the Jesuits, Ricci and Ruggieri, who in the 16th century played a large, if not exclusive role, in promoting the idea of Confucius as a philosopher to the West. There are those who have taken a critical view — not unreasonably — of that quasi-baptism of a politically and religiously valuable segment of Chinese canonical work and sometimes revered historical figure as philosophy and philosopher, respectively. I’m largely sympathetic to such criticism of these Jesuits — it was a little too important to them to make Chinese texts and figures familiarly philosophical and abstracted from ritual, ceremonial, and political use.

    I think there can be post-colonial approaches to the question that wonder legitimately whether “philosophy” has been used too much as a colored conceptual lens for appreciating, more accurately, the role of texts and historical figures in an intellectual history that differs more from Western intellectual (and theological) history than we, as comparative philosophers, sometimes acknowledge. It does not seem like this is Tampio’s argument, or even general approach, however. Also, it is an approach that says more about the motives and potential limitations of comparative philosophy than about what is and isn’t philosophy.

    We should think, from this approach, about what Tampio’s motive, or intellectual goal, is in trying to mark off the territory of “philosophy” in the somewhat flip way he seems to be doing. The Republic as beginning of philosophy? Really? If indeed his quick definition of philosophy as “a restless pursuit for truth through contentious dialogue” is what he means, there are plenty of examples of that outside of, prior to, and geographically far removed from ancient Greece. Likewise, Tampio’s restriction that philosophy must take place “among ordinary human beings in cities, not sages and disciples on mountaintops, and it requires the fearless use of reason even in the face of established traditions or religious commitments” seems not exactly parochial, but irrelevant to the “restless pursuit for truth.”

    More to the point, however, Tampio’s stated motive is a concern about “the debate within ongoing debates about the funding of higher education,” in particular, the harmful effect that a perception of philosophy being “racist, sexist and worthy of an imminent demise” might have on those who would argue against supporting it in higher education. If the charge is that philosophy as practiced in higher education actually *is* racist and sexist, in the spirit of the restless pursuit for truth, it seems like a bad tack to try to define the terms implausibly or in a question-begging way, in order to deny the claim. In any case, Tampio’s energies are ill-directed since the types of politicians who are out to defund Philosophy as a discipline most likely don’t care about the value of cross-cultural philosophical work and had in mind Plato and the variety of footnotes to him in the West as their intended target.

  4. Thanks for the stimulating responses, colleagues! I was planning to say more about Tampio here but what I’ve written is too long for the comments section, so I’ve updated the post and put it all below the fold.

  5. Hi, Justin,
    I was interested to see your take on all this, especially the part about being glad that more definite criteria are being explicitly offered. I hadn’t thought of it that way, so I started to cheer up. But then I toggled back to frustration.

    It seems to me that flickers of this sort of thing feature in a lot of conversations about whether Chinese philosophy is philosophy. People at least hint at criteria or definitions of “philosophy” they think exclude it. But no one in the field agrees about this! So my more pessimistic sense of this is that responding to any *particular* set of criteria given goes nowhere. It’s an illusion of progress rather than real movement. Because we just end up playing whack-a-mole, with new criteria introduced by different interlocutors with different views. The moles are endless! And that makes me think the real root of the problem is that there is no *consensus* set of criteria, yet lots of people behave as if there is while giving idiosyncratic criteria they prefer. The net result is that we get snared into engaging individuals when the systemic problem passes unremarked – I.e., that while there is no consensus, the discipline has opted to go with reflexive, unexamined conservatism. No one agrees about what philosophy is, but they’ve collectively, by default and in practice, decided to agree that Chinese sources are not it. Am I being too cynical…?

    • Yes, I know it so well. Your list of the familiar responses to posts like this one captures, in exasperating detail, what it’s like to deal with shifting criteria, deployed for purposes of excluding Chinese thought and then set aside until the next round. Shifting criteria selectively applied are a good indicator of motivated reasoning. (Of course, my own reasoning about the scope of Chinese philosophy is motivated too.)

      But some among the critics are arguing in good faith. My sense is that portion of these philosophers are trying to work their way toward a set of criteria permissive enough to include some of the other philosophical traditions of breadth and depth, but not so permissive that philosophy will lose its historical and methodological core. And I understand that motivation well. I don’t want it to be the case that students can get undergraduate degrees in philosophy without developing an appreciation of Aristotle, Hume, and Kant, and learning how to make big, unwieldy ideas clear using well-crafted definitions and examples. But that’s a slippery slope that the vast majority of departments don’t have to worry about, so I can chill out.

  6. My guess is that the main operative view is that whatever Chinese philosophy there may be is (like almost all Western philosophy) just not good enough to deserve a significant place in the curriculum. Not that there aren’t bright moments.

    (Minor operative details might include that (a) like Nietzsche, old Chinese philosophy tends not to exemplify the kind of special academic practices of clear writing and argument etc. that academic philosophy in the west relies on, and is expected by the university to teach in Gen Ed. And (b) Chinese philosophy involves big extra burdens, which is one reason why it’s hard to find someone who’s good at studying Chinese philosophy and good enough at philosophy itself and the other subfields to engage colleagues interestingly in their own specialties. There’s an idea that in philosophy depts especially, most subfields are closely enough related to the others that most dept members are in fact prepared to engage most of their colleagues interestingly on their colleagues’ projects, and occasionally do, and need that help themselves.)

    So if a mainstreamer challenged in person gives immediately one of the bad arguments, it may be in large part polite euphemism. Or if the argument is in a publication, like Tampio’s, the background picture might be:

    “Granted, everybody loves some wisdom sometime; but the various definitions of philosophy describe things that correlate pretty well with each other, and are all present in great quantity in the tradition the West acknowledges, and not so much in China, not concentrated.

    “If there were great stuff in China we would have heard about it. If there were dozens of big ideas in China worth studying, somebody would have brought one of them forward into our discussion successfully, and you would be able to remind me what that was and how it corrected something. If there are leading candidate texts, we must by now have heard what they are. We have already glanced at the Analects, the Daodejing, maybe the Mencius. One might well have expected good philosophy to develop very soon after that sort of thing.”

    If manifestly impressive philosophers, or manifestly philosophically impressive historians of philosophy, give their word that there is great stuff in the Chinese tradition, concentrations of great stuff, that can go a little way. But not if it’s the only thing. What would really change minds is to show the good stuff contributing to what the West is ready to recognize as philosophical progress. Fight for the particular ideas in mainstream fora.

    • Of course I’m not saying that has never been done. In fact that’s not something I would know. But the fights have to be many; or if very few, won big.

    • “My guess is that the main operative view is that whatever Chinese philosophy there may be is (like almost all Western philosophy) just not good enough to deserve a significant place in the curriculum. Not that there aren’t bright moments.”

      Yeah, that’s my guess too, although it is rarely mentioned by either side. My hunch is that we would be more persuasive if other professional philosophers in the U.S. and Europe (1) read the right stuff carefully, and (2) didn’t think that appointing a specialist in Chinese philosophy came at the expense of a position in their preferred areas. (2) may be taking care of itself. In universities like mine, and I suspect many CSUs, our interests generally converge. Departments need their token non-Western specialist in order to have the credibility and leverage to get other positions.

      But getting them to read the right stuff is another matter. It would help to point them to the better and more accessible secondary literature, at least at the beginning. As for primary materials, forgive me, but it is probably a strategic mistake to encourage doubters to start with the Analects and the Daodejing. I think both texts are philosophical and yield a great deal of philosophical fruit, but at the first pass people tend see them as collections of pithy aphorisms without arguments, and they take them to be representative of the Chinese tradition as a whole (as Tampio seems to do). There’s so much good material later in the tradition, much of it with a closer family resemblance to the kind of materials that other philosophers work on. So it makes sense–at least for strategic purposes–to let Xunzi, Fazang, Wang Yangming, Dai Zhen or some engaging secondary literature be the point of entry. It takes some work to reconstruct and unpack some of the arguments, but less work than for Hegel, Kierkegaard, or Deleuze.

    • Then here’s a kind of book that might be attractive and valuable: a short book of selections from one Chinese philosopher, one actual author, translated into English and annotated in light of potential relations to philosophy as done today in English. Something clearly meant to be read on its own, as the small Watson volumes are. And with whole essays, like the Watson volumes, not just fragments as in Learning to be a Sage.

      (That wasn’t me judging that the most famous stuff is the best. I’ve read very little later stuff, and personally have no idea of the philosophical value of the things Justin recommends above, though it’s clear at a glance that there’s more articulate sophistication in later work. It’s maybe not clear at a glance that the later work can be appreciated independently of the earlier.)


      I want to say that it seems to me that a great deal of what is published in this debate on each side is badly mistaken in ways that the other side can see immediately. That must help each side think the other lacks a real case. It’s not an entirely unreasonable reaction. But both sides have the mainstream as their proper target audience.

    • I wrote the above before seeing the comments by Alexus and Hagop (below) opposing my last point.

  7. Let me take the cynical view–I think we’re barking up the wrong tree here to some extent. I really don’t think there’s *anything* we can do to convince the deniers that there is philosophy in China, and I don’t think we shouldn’t bother. Here’s why (briefly):

    1) They will not be convinced, simply because they don’t *want* to see Chinese Philosophy as philosophy. When someone denies something as philosophy without having read much or any of it, and presents what they do see in the most uncharitable light possible, they clearly have an agenda. We can give examples of good philosophy in Chinese sources until we’re blue in the face–they’ll just continue to deny it, read it so uncharitably as to stretch the boundaries of the imagination, and/or find the areas ambiguous or unphilosophical enough within the texts to bolster their claims. I’m sure all of us have seen this happen.

    These people aren’t stupid–this is a strategy devised to undermine the legitimacy of Chinese thought as philosophy. If they were open to the possibility of Non-Western philosophy, they could easily find tons of clearly philosophical material. They know how to do research to find new material in the areas they’re working on, don’t they? They know how to find philosophy–they simply won’t. The claim that they “don’t see anything philosophical in these traditions” is merely a cover for this unwillingness. This is demonstrated by the fact that most people who make this claim simply have not read any Chinese Philosophy. Trying to convince this kind of person is wasted effort.

    2) I think the best way forward for us, as I suggested in my article in the recent APA newsletter, is simply to bypass the haters, or rather to go over their heads. There’s nothing we can do about them, and even if we could, it’s unclear that would help our situation much. The real battle to be won is at the level of the “who cares about philosophy/why should we fund philosophy?” debate, which is largely happening outside of philosophy departments. I think we should focus on trying to position Chinese Philosophy as centrally important in this larger debate, and aiming at a broader audience. Instead of looking to gain a better standing among our more dismissive fellow philosophers (who cares what they think anyway?), we should probably be aiming primarily to get the attention and respect of the broader public, administrators, etc. If we win them over, then it’s game over for the haters, regardless of any subsequent whining they want to do.

    (Also, yes–I’ve been Han Feizi recently 😉 )

    • Ha! I prefer the Freudian slip. I have to say that I share these sentiments, Alexus. I also think that we might tend to overestimate the ability of professional philosophers to be responsive to arguments and evidence (this is an occupational hazard).

      Having said that, a mea culpa: I have strong opinions (like most everyone else in the profession) about what’s ‘real philosophy’ and what’s not. So I can’t exactly fault people for having similar strong opinions, even if they’re about something I care deeply about. The problem is that many of these areas that I would be happy to see fade away have entrenched squatter’s rights in the field, whereas we’re trying to get more than a foot in the door.

  8. Thanks for all of the good comments, colleagues. Just a few, relatively quick responses.

    I’m cynical as well, for the reasons that Amy, Manyul, Bill, Ben, Alexus, and Hagop have given. And my cynicism is also informed by years of arguing about the scope of philosophy at my PhD institution (which tended to be conservative on this issue). Perhaps the quality of those debates was slightly better than the ones we now see in blog comments, but only occasionally. One clever friend began with an argument very similar to Tampio’s, except that footnotes were to Socrates rather than Plato. After several revisions he arrived at the following position, which struck me as transparently self-serving and strained: for a thought tradition to count as philosophy it must be done self-consciously by people who see it as distinct from other forms of inquiry, must be committed to questioning its own foundations, and must engage meaningfully and self-consciously with the tradition of Socrates. Interesting criteria, but not justifiable, and if they were accurate then philosophy would have died of oxygen deprivation long ago (probably in Europe’s early medieval period).

    But while I agree with much of Alexus’ cynical position, I disagree with the two upshots: that there’s nothing we can do to convince the deniers that there is philosophy in China, and that we shouldn’t bother. On the contrary, it’s pretty clear to me that there are things we can do and that we should bother. What we should bother to do is, at minimum, answer their objections and point to the right material in Chinese philosophy, primary or secondary.

    Here’s why. Some deniers are persuadable. A very small number are persuaded relatively easily, and a somewhat larger number are persuadable with artful use of the various approaches that disarm and overcome cognitive biases: fasting the mind, reminding them of ways in which you share common cause, allowing them to claim ownership of changes of heart, etc. But furthermore, answering their objections and providing them with examples of good work is an expression of respect, even if the respect isn’t reciprocated, and even if they never bother to read the work. I’m a big believer in expressing respect unconditionally, which, I think, is a principle that underwrites Gandhi’s and MLK’s theories of social change, and explains why they have been effective.

    • Good points! Strikes me as a very Confucian response to the problem. I guess maybe a middle way is something like offering responses to deniers and pointing them to material, but not sweating it too much when they ignore it or continue to reject what we offer them? At some point, one’s energy is wasted. Of course, it’s hard to know where that point is. I feel like I keep offering the same reasons over and over again, and then just look for other ways instead. But I think you have a good point–maybe it’s a good thing to continue to spend some time to make the effort to convince the deniers (along with doing work to go around them), even if we know the response will (for the most part) be negative. But not too much effort! 😉

    • Also, I’d add that even if deniers won’t be persuaded, you never know who else is reading or will read a response (assuming the conversation is public).

  9. Really sorry to see your guys continue to have to wage this battle daily.

    Honestly, I don’t get it. China may or may not be marginalized in your History department, but nobody has declared that it has no history. It may or may not be marginalized in your Art History department, but nobody has declared that it has no art. Ditto for Religious Studies. Ditto, frankly, for just about any other discipline you can think of. Has anyone thought of asking philosophers why China had everything else we teach on campus–but just not philosophy?

    But I tend to agree with Alexus: the more pragmatic approach would be to ask administrators why Philosophy departments are permitted to be the last bulwark of Occidentalism.

    • Nobody–or very few people–have denied that China has a history recently, but China’s lack of history was the mainstream view (in Euro-America) from Hegel through a lot of the 20th century. Maybe Western historians’ slow acceptance of China’s historicity foreshadows some progress in Philosophy.

  10. Here is a good opportunity to showcase Chinese philosophy to a captive international audience:

    The XXIV World Congress of Philosophy, “Learning to Be Human,” to be held in Beijing, China, from August 13-20, 2018.

    The conference is organized by the Fédération Internationale des Sociétés de Philosophie/International Federation of Philosophical Societies

    What is FISP?

    FISP is the highest non-governmental world organization for philosophy. It was established in 1948. Its main objectives are: to contribute directly to the development of professional relations between philosophers of all countries, freely and with mutual respect; to foster contacts between institutions, societies and periodical publications dedicated to philosophy; to collect documentation useful for the development of philosophical studies; to sponsor every five years a World Congress, the first one of which met in 1900; to promote philosophical education, to prepare publications of global interest and to contribute to the impact of philosophical knowledge on global problems. FISP members are not individual philosophers, but philosophical societies and other similar philosophical institutions at national, regional and international levels. Among its approximately one hundred members, three-quarters are national and one-quarter international societies. FISP is a member of CIPSH, le Conseil International de Philosophie et des Sciences Humaines (ICPHS in English). CIPSH, also a non-governmental organization, consists of thirteen World Federations and constitutes the link between these Federations and UNESCO.



    WCP 2018 First Circular: Chinese English French


    • As annoyed as I am by the claim that there has been no philosophy in China, the fact that the world conference of philosophy will be held in Beijing wouldn’t help much, because American philosophers think that only APA meetings are real meetings among philosophers.

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