[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.
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.