Chinese Philosophy Arcs

[Guest contributor, Eric Schwitzgebel, takes a quantitative look at Anglophonic discussions of Chinese philosophy and offers a conjecture. Please address all comments directly to him.]

Different classical Chinese philosophers have drawn different amounts of discussion in the Anglophone world over the past seventy years.  I want to look at this phenomenon quantitatively and then suggest a general conjecture about the history of philosophy.

The six target philosophers include two who are well-known in the Western world outside scholarly circles, Confucius and Laozi (aka Lao Tzu), and four who are much less well known, Mencius, Zhuangzi, Xunzi, and Mozi (aka Mengzi, Chuang Tzu, Hsün Tzu, and Mo Tzu).  Below is a graph of their “discussion arcs” — that is, the rates, times 1000, at which their names appear in keyword (including abstract and title) searches in Philosopher’s Index, divided by a representative universe of articles. Click the image for a clearer view.

(For more details on discussion arcs, see here and here. My search terms also included many less common early spellings such as Mocius and Chuangtze.)

One result that jumps out is (as one might expect) the relative prominence of Confucius. Also striking, though, on closer inspection, is another phenomenon: The relative decline of Confucius and Laozi compared to the other four philosophers. To better display this trend, here’s a comparison of the proportion of articles mentioning Confucius or Laozi to the proportion mentioning any of the other four. (Again, click for clarity.)

I don’t interpret as meaningful the apparently very tight match of the lines at the end of the graph — but the approximate match does seem meaningful. In the 1940s-1970s, Confucius and Laozi combined received about twice as much discussion as the other four philosophers combined. Starting in the 1990s, that situation changed.

My general conjecture is this: As a subfield in the history of philosophy matures (as I believe the history of Chinese philosophy has done in the past couple decades), proportionately less expository attention is devoted to the most famous headline figures and proportionately more attention is devoted to less well known figures. This is a kind of “winnowing of the greats” in reverse.

If that conjecture is correct, we ought to see the same effect in other subareas of the history of philosophy.

16 replies on “Chinese Philosophy Arcs”

  1. Interesting–Mencius has just, in this decade, overtaken Confucius for the first time. I wonder to what extent this might also be due to the focus on Mencius by people who have the ear of the analytic philosophy “establishment” (Wong, Ivanhoe, Van Norden, etc.)? Of course that’s just wild speculation, but it would be interesting to see what *secondary* literature is most cited in these articles.
    Also–Eric, have you compiled any of the data in the other areas of history of philosophy yet? Those would be interesting to see! I’d especially be curious to see what the case is in Indian philosophy.

    • Yes, both those analyses would be interesting! I do suspect that some of the rise of the four, especially Mencius, comes from the efforts of the Stanford-trained group. But I haven’t attempted to quantify that.

  2. This is really interesting, Eric!

    The aspects of the graph that leap out at me are the general mid-century trough, and the fact that the Confucius arc seems independent of the general trend. Possibly the general trough reflects the vicissitudes of anglophone philosophers’ interest in practical ethics as compared to other things. An additional or alternate explanation might be the relative lack of contact between China and the west from the 1940s through the 1970s.

    The relative decline of the Laozi seems steady. The big relative event I see is the relative decline of Confucius, happening mainly in the late 1970s and early 1980s, prior to the big books: Schwartz 1985, Graham 1989, Hansen 1992.

    I’m curious as to the approximate range of absolute numbers that is represented on the chart by, say, a 3. (The post says “times 1000” – but is there any actual difference here between saying “times 1000” and saying, say, “times 10” or “divided by 7”?)

    • Hi Bill! On your first point: I haven’t done arcs for applied ethics specifically, but I have done subfield arcs for ethics here:
      What I found was a flat period from the 1940s-1960s for ethics vs other fields, and thereafter a steady rise in ethics relative to the other fields.

      That post also includes some absolute numbers. For the current analysis, the denominators are about 3,000 in the 1940s to about 100,000 in the 2000s. That’s only a representative universe of articles (based on common-term keyword searches), not the full size of the PhilIndex database. So in the 1940s, the absolute number for Confucius is 9; in the 2000s it’s 260. That might seem like a big rise, but it’s actually a decline percentagewise!

      I also did a search for “China*” or “Chinese*”, not reported above. What I found was a pretty steady rate around 10-14, rising to 17 in the 2000s and 21 in the 2010s. So that might be somewhat in tension with your hypothesis about “closed” vs “open” China.

    • I think what I called “relative lack of contact” would in the 1940s have been due mainly to war. I think a steady absolute rate wouldn’t be in significant tension with the hypothesis. It’s plain enough that increased interaction with China is one of the engines of philosophical work in recent decades, so I guess the question to ask would be whether interaction with China was an engine before 1940. One can easily see how it might go the other way: trouble in China could push scholars from China to live and publish in Anglophonia. It might be interesting to try to control for that.

      I gather that in the middle of the twentieth century, anglophone philosophy was studiously meta. Hence while they might write plenty about ethics, they’d think of it only very abstractly, and if they ventured into practical ethics they’d conceive it as “applied ethics.” I think it would be pretty hard to do a relevant search.

      Another kind of hypothesis about the trough might have to do with the incentives to publish. I don’t have a specific hypothesis in mind. But I’m thinking that the pressure to publish increased over these decades in such a way as to encourage people to churn out hack-work (accounting for most of the aticles in any field), and that the dynamics of that process might work a little differently for different branches of philosophy. There might be different kinds of impact on training and employment, different bottlenecks. I don’t know.

    • (Sorry, I should have said why I think the flat “China/Chinese” numbers aren’t in tension with the hypothesis that degree of contact with China is an important influence on the relative publication rate. For the early decades, the hypothesis would suggest a decrease in the relative publication rate, which is consistent with flat absolute numbers. For the later decades, one would expect a rising “China/Chinese” rate, but on the other hand, as discussion of e.g. Zhuangzi becomes more common, one might expect it to become less common to mention China in connection with him. In any case, if the low recent “China/Chinese” rate is to be a problem for the hypothesis, presumably that would be because it signals an overall low recent rate of publications in Chinese philosophy – which doesn’t obtain.)

    • Hm. My first thought was that one might test the relevance of contact by a parallel set of searches for papers on Indian philosophy. The latter set of searches would be harder to do, I think, because Indian philosophy isn’t so well concentrated under a few names.

      But Indian philosophy is more concerned with abstract and non-ethical issues than is Chinese, so one might expect it to connect with midcentury Western interests.

      On the other hand, the midcentury anglophones may have been especially uninterested in casting a wide net for ideas, feeling instead that philosophy was hot on the trail of important general answers, needing mainly careful thinking.

  3. My two cents: at first I was skeptical of the line representing Laozi, only because the discoveries at Mawangdui and Guodian renewed interest in the book. However, these finds might be reflected in your graph, just not as obvious as I would have thought. I suspect the increased attention Mencius, Xunzi, Zhuangzi and Mozi is due to the fact that there is not much new to say about them, in contrast with the others. I would imagine students are encouraged to explore something new in their dissertations and papers, rather than write about Confucius and Laozi, which have been “done to death.” Zhuangzi is the new “Daoist” of choice now. (Personally, I still love to read stuff on Laozi).

    • Yes, Scott, Confucius and Laozi might seem relatively “stale” territory compared to the other four, leading to a scholarly disincentive to work on them, perhaps explaining the trend. I think that thought fits nicely with my field-maturity hypothesis, and if so I would expect the same phenomenon to occur in other subfields of the history of philosophy.

      Compared to Wang Yangming and Zhu Xi, Mencius and Zhuangzi are stale, though — so maybe it’s time to go medieval!

    • Hi,

      Glad you understood my poorly worded: “I suspect the increased attention Mencius, Xunzi, Zhuangzi and Mozi is due to the fact that there is not much new to say about them, in contrast with the others” which should have been: “I suspect the increased attention Mencius, Xunzi, Zhuangzi and Mozi is due to the fact that there is not much new to say about CONFUCIUS AND LAOZI, in contrast with the others.”

      Medieval is fine, though there is still plenty of old stuff worth exploring, like Wang Chong, for example. Other books that have received more attention lately is the Lüshi Chunqiu, Huainanzi and perhaps Hanfeizi. One that is perhaps stale also is Sunzi. I’m not sure about the Yijing.

      On a side note, new translations are needed for a number of ancient Chinese texts, such as the Shangshu, Chunqiu Zuozhuan, Hanfeizi, Chuci, Shangjunshu, Heguanzi, Liji …

    • On the comment about translations: true! If you or anyone else reading this is interested in undertaking such a project, please let me know. It is worth knowing, though, that several of these are underway (and one or two actually in press, I am told) at the University of Washington.

    • Hi Bill — An excellent point! No real idea why it isn’t on the list, other than perhaps its miscellaneous nature making it a challenge? But as has been pointed out here now and again, its importance has certainly been neglected.

    • Yes, what would put me off translating it is the thought that people would expect new scholarly treatments of the dating and origins of the parts. Let’s all raise our hands and swear not to expect any such thing!

    • 🙂 For what it’s worth, in the Johnston/Wang Da Xue & Zhong Yong that I posted about recently, they pretty briefly review the various views about the authorship of those two parts of the Liji, and then say, essentially, that there’s no real evidence in favor of any of the views, so it remains unknown. (Their treatment of the compilation of the Liji itself in the Han is more concrete but also succinct, and the same goes for their contextualization of the various commentaries.)

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