“Picture a world where human relationships are challenging, narcissism and self-centeredness are on the rise, and there is disagreement on the best way for people to live harmoniously together.
It sounds like 21st-century America. But the society that Michael Puett, a tall, 48-year-old bespectacled professor of Chinese history at Harvard University, is describing to more than 700 rapt undergraduates is China, 2,500 years ago.
Puett’s course Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory has become the third most popular course at the university….”
Yes, good piece. It’s interesting that a history professor is teaching “Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory,” in light of recent comments by Paul Goldin describing the different approaches of historians and philosophers (in the “Chinese Philosophy Lifts Off in America” thread).
Yes – and I think it makes sense that a course taught this way would be taught by a historian rather than a philosophy prof.
Michael’s Ph.D. is in Anthropology, in fact, and he’s in the East Asian Languages & Civilizations Department — an interdisciplinary outfit that has scholars with training in many disciplines, though no one with a Ph.D. in Philosophy, as it turns out. Tu Wei-ming was also in EALC at Harvard, and taught a somewhat similar course that was also quite popular, as I understand it.
Also, I guess that I lean toward disagreeing with you, Bill, when you say that it makes sense that Michael’s course, as described, is more of a historian’s course. Of course it depends on what aspect of the course you’re focusing on, but if it’s the “this will change your life,” “go out and practice” side of the course, then this sounds more like philosophy to me. Although, as Paul said in the other thread, there is a learn-about-yourself-by-learning-about-the-other aspect to history, the emphasis on potential contemporary relevance is much stronger, I would have thought, in a philosophical encounter with these ancient texts. And not just in an “is this statement that we find in the Analects true?” sense, but also in the “is this true to my life and experience?” sense, and a “how does taking this seriously change my life?” sense.
To add to what Steve says, when I was doing my 2nd undergrad degree in the mid-90s, I spent a good amount of time with Julia Ching (a religious philosopher for those of you not familiar with her). Two of the texts she consistently required were The World of Thought in Ancient China by Schwartz and To Become a God by Puett. My point is that sometimes a cross-disciplinary approach better serves the interests of students and it doesn’t have to be unidirectional either (i.e., historians can turn to phil/rlg but not the other way round). I also think Paul’s “philosophical reservations” are well-founded, especially given the rise of the analytic movement.