Defoort on Chinese Philosophy

I’m working on a “demarcation problem” section for my textbook, touching on issues about philosophy, Western philosophy, and Chinese philosophy. I’ve actually learned a lot from discussing the issue with some of you on the blog. Also, I was happy to discover — belatedly — a great piece by Carine Defoort that lays out the issues in a nicely structured way and helps me to see how my own thinking maps onto the spectrum of views one could have about Chinese philosophy.

Here is a brief excerpt from the beginning of Defoort’s “Is There Such a Thing as Chinese Philosophy? Arguments of an Implicit Debate” (Philosophy East and West 51:3 (Jul., 2001), pp. 393-413). I’m not sure why I’ve never read this piece before, given my interest in the topic, but I’m just now discovering it, along with follow-up discussion pieces five years later (PEW 56:4) by Rein Raud and Defoort. In this excerpt, Defoort lays out the origins of the term “Chinese Philosophy” (394-5):

The Expression “Chinese Philosophy”

Doubt over the legitimacy of Chinese philosophy is not exclusively the result of Western chauvinism. Indeed, the expression “Chinese philosophy” encompasses a strange paradox, which threatens to call its very identity into question. Just like other concepts such as “science” or “human rights,” philosophy, by definition, makes a certain claim to universality, without thereby denying its particular, Western origin. “Spanish science” or “Swiss human rights” sounds strange to our ears because the adjectives in these expressions pose a threat to the universal pretensions of the respective nouns. Whatever these expressions might mean, we are not inclined to accept that they refer to a type of science or human rights that is only valid in these countries. Philosophy is somewhat more lenient in this respect: we are accustomed to such expressions as “Continental” or “Anglo-Saxon” philosophy, denoting different types or genres within the philosophical tradition. But even here we do not accept that the adjective stakes such a claim upon the noun that “Continental philosophy” could only be grasped by the European continental mind. In the expression “Chinese philosophy,” however, the grip of the adjective upon the noun appears so strong that philosophy risks being suffocated.

One important reason for this is that the term “philosophy”—just like many other Western terms—has been applied to the Chinese tradition in retrospect. During the nineteenth century, Japan opened its doors and turned to the West for inspiration and modernization. So did China with the coming of the twentieth century, sending students to Japan to learn of its success. A Japanese scholar, Nishi Amane (1829-1887), had studied in the Netherlands and translated books into Japanese, among which were some on philosophy (in 1873). He invented a Japanese term on the basis of two Chinese characters: the “study” of “wisdom” 哲學 tetsugaku in Japanese, zhexue in Chinese. This was not particularly new; already in the seventeenth century, Western missionaries had labeled the great Chinese master and other classics (among them the Yijing or Book of Changes) as philosophy, and this while their Chinese contemporaries described Aristotle’s work in Chinese terms (qiongli gewu 窮理格物). What was new at the end of the nineteenth century was the disappearance of this cultural balance labeling the other in one’s own terms. Not only did Western philosophical terminology dominate proceedings, but it was also eagerly adopted by the Chinese, through Japanese translation, in the description of their own thought tradition. That part of the textual corpus that was traditionally assigned to the masters (zhuzi 諸子) along with some books of the Confucian Canon (jing 經)—continuing from the fifth century B.C. (by our count) up until the nineteenth century A.D.—has been retrospectively branded as “Chinese philosophy” (Zhongguo zhexue 中國哲學).

The strange thing is that this introduction of philosophy in China around the end of the nineteenth century, together with other disciplines and above all in the con- text of radical institutional changes, has practically marked the end of this very tradition of the masters. Those who nevertheless continue to study the old masters in a separate branch within philosophy departments no longer call themselves “masters,” but rather “specialists” in Chinese philosophy. The curriculum of this separate branch consists mainly of traditional Chinese thought as it existed up until the introduction of Western thinking. Historical compilations of Chinese philosophy also often stop at the end of the nineteenth century or the beginning of the twentieth. Thus, at the moment when Chinese philosophy was retrospectively created or recognized, it also largely ceased to exist as a living tradition. “Chinese philosophy” seems to have died of its own birth: “Chinese philosophy” (of the traditional masters) and “philosophy in China” (at modern universities) exclude each other in the sense that, since the introduction of the latter, the former could only continue to exist in a foreign institutional setting, as a separated corpus and object of study. The fatal allergic reaction that the Chinese masters have developed toward this strange discipline raises questions regarding their combination: is this actually Chinese? And is it still philosophy?

Defoort then goes on in subsequent sections to problematize the question of whether there is such a thing as Chinese philosophy. There are four positions that Defoort identifies, the first two tending toward treating the question as straightforwardly factual, the second two treating it as more conceptual and value-laden, respectively. Adding some of my own paraphrasing, Defoort’s four positions are:

  1. Chinese philosophy does not exist
  2. Chinese philosophy exists
  3. It depends on the descriptive meaning of “philosophy” (Defoort titles this position: What is the Meaning of “Philosophy”?)
  4. It depends on the value, whether pro or con, that one places on philosophy (Defoort titles this position: What is the Value of “Philosophy”?)

A quick look at the list might make most of us think of 3 as the “position” on which the other three depend, either implicitly or explicitly. In fact, the latter is one of the main points of Defoort’s piece — namely that the positions people take on the question of whether Chinese philosophy exists are usually full of implicit assumptions that are not clearly articulated explicitly. However, her point in calling 3 a separate position is that it represents the most explicit view out there, whereas the others are positions people take without actually stating up front what they mean by “philosophy.” Also, as we’ll see later, she characterizes 3 in such a way that it ends up being a substantive position that answers “yes” to the question of whether Chinese philosophy exists.

Defoort thinks the people who say that Chinese philosophy does not exist can really be of two varieties — those who take position 1 without really stating their assumptions about what they mean by ‘philosophy,’ and those who take up position 4 along with the premise that philosophy isn’t the sort of thing that’s so valuable that Chinese culture would be lacking anything important if it didn’t have it. Those who take up position one have, predictably, a narrow definition of ‘philosophy,’ according to Defoort. But actually, so do those who take up position 4 in the way Defoort characterizes them (though, ironically, she doesn’t seem to state this explicitly). Defoort explains how the narrow definition of ‘philosophy’ for those who take position 1 works (396):

[They give] a theoretical argument that states that the Chinese masters do not in general-and certainly not entirely-satisfy the conditions of philosophy. Western academics may, of course, differ regarding the definition of this term, but there is nevertheless a vague consensus that allows for a variety of writings under the label of philosophy, but not for just anything. Philosophy must give the appearance of systematicity, reflection, and rationality; it must differ from science and religion; and it must be divisible into various subdisciplines such as metaphysics, logic, and epistemology. A great deal of the teachings of the old Chinese masters from the so-called Golden Age of Chinese philosophy (the fifth to third centuries B.C.) rarely meet these demands. Thinkers like Laozi and Confucius, who are traditionally branded as the founders of Taoism and Confucianism, respectively, expressed themselves in short proverbs, aphorisms, or conversations without concerning themselves too much with systematicity, logic, or any other philosophical criterion.

Interestingly, Defoort’s description of the views held by those who deny that there is Chinese philosophy by taking some version of position 4, attributes an even narrower account of the meaning of ‘philosophy.’ This view is held by those who regard philosophy as (404):

…a primarily Western cultural product, a strange and useless conversation in which European tribes have trained themselves, full of earnestness and sedulity. It is a very specific discourse that for some reason or other has maintained a high level of subscription in the mysterious West.

(Though Defoort thinks it is mainly Chinese intellectuals who hold such a view, I’ve certainly spoken with a lot of Westerners whose recollections of their college philosophy classes sounded very much like this — substituting “uptightness” or something of the sort for “sedulity,” of course.)

On the other hand, the view that Chinese philosophy does exist is accommodated in two ways, according Defoort. One maneuver takes for granted the same sort of account of philosophy that those who take position 1 have — namely, that it is systematic, reflective, and rational; also that it is sub-dividable into metaphysics, logic, and epistemology — then attributes all those facets to the Chinese thinkers in question. Defoort cites Feng Yulan and Hu Shi as the pioneering figures in promoting the latter, through their reconstructions of the Chinese tradition along such lines (397-8). (This sort of approach, by the way, is probably what a lot of us tend toward, or at the least, it is the approach that led us into the field.) The other maneuver is to be more liberal with the term ‘philosophy’ and the possibilities for enriching our understanding of the concept it names. Defoort identifies this, actually, with position 3 (403):

The third position is held above all by sinologists with philosophical training and, analogously, by philosophers with sinological training. They claim, on the one hand, that the tradition of the Chinese masters sufficiently resembles the wider Western philosophical tradition — and not simply its modern variant — to be labeled as philosophy. After all, the masters pose questions of deep human concern while substantiating their ideas with examples and arguments. On the other hand, their themes and forms of reasoning are sometimes so fundamentally different from those of their Western counterparts that the Chinese masters offer a unique opportunity to question, in a philosophical manner, the current notion of “philosophy” itself.

Indeed, this may be something that Western philosophers tirelessly continue to do: strive for the ideal of objectivity or open-mindedness. Within the humanities this ideal can best be realized in confrontation with what is most different; and what is more different from our Western philosophical tradition than ancient Chinese thought? The third position admits that the adjective “Chinese” does have an influence on the term “philosophy,” but a beneficial one, because it breaks through the unarticulated — and therefore even stronger — modern limitations of the notion “philosophy” and its dominant categories.

Those who support the broadening of the prevailing term “philosophy” to encompass the Chinese masters perceive in Chinese thought not only the advantage of an entirely new perspective, but even a valuable alternative for what many consider to be an inveterate metaphysical tradition with its sharp contrast between reality and language, prescription and description, saying and doing, objective and subjective, self and other, and so on. It is no coincidence that the push for this appreciation of the Chinese heritage has arisen at the hands of critics of the Western tradition. According to them, we must focus our attention not on those ancient Chinese ideas that, after some adaptation, can be taken up within the circles of Western discussion, but precisely on those ideas that seem stubbornly subversive toward concepts and categories from the West.


I suspect readers of this blog hover somewhere between positions 2 and 3, as Defoort describes them. My own mind tends to depend on my mood — 2 when I’m in a good mood, 3 when less, and 1 when I’m in a foul mood from having struggled to make philosophical hay out of a difficult passage. I’d be curious to read your thoughts, both about Defoort and your own, considered answer to the question of whether there is such a thing as Chinese philosophy, especially to the extent that it brings into play different premises or principles from the ones Defoort discusses.

18 thoughts on “Defoort on Chinese Philosophy

  1. Hi Manyul! For those of you with access to JSTOR, the whole Defoort article is here. As I understand Defoort, position 3 is a version or further specification of position 2, just as 4 is a version of 1. It seems to me that 3 is the way to go, although: (i) it needn’t be as radical as the quote from Defoort suggests, and (ii) it does need to answer the challenge that Defoort goes on to issue, namely: “An all-too-generous expansion of the term “philosophy” leads to a concept that encompasses almost everything–and that, therefore, means almost nothing” [406]. I don’t think Defoort wants (or thinks appropriate) necessary-and-sufficient-conditions for a broader-but-not-too-broad extension for “philosophy,” but she is right to signal the danger of an expansive approach. Manyul, is this danger the reason you lean toward 3 only when in a less good mood?

    • Hi Steve. The main kinds of philosophical questions and possibilities that interest me, since long ago, are the kind that take traditional Western form — what is the good? what makes right? what is our relationship to the world that we can know things about it? etc. The typical answers that I like to consider and grapple with are those that present systematic and rationally compelling arguments. That’s what pulled me into philosophy in the first place. So, to answer your question, when I feel like I see those sorts of questions and answers in the Chinese material — that’s what I guess I meant by “when I’m in a good mood” — then I find myself taking the position that there is clearly such a thing as Chinese philosophy, in the sense of Defoort’s position 2. Sometimes I get the sense that I’m doing a bit too much reconstruction — in the ways that Defoort seems to suggest Fung and Hu do — and that makes me move to position 3. It’s not too far of a slide from 3 to 1 for me, however, because intellectually, I mainly crave the proverbial “rigor” in the source material versus my having to do too much reconstruction. At some point it can seem like I’m making up the philosophy myself.

    • Nice thoughts. I don’t really go in for this type of meta-theorizing about Chinese philosophy, but I can understand what you’re getting at Manyul.

      I wonder, though, whether even sliding to 1 makes much difference, all told, if the source material still gets you to reconstruct and to make systematic and rationally compelling arguments meant to support some conclusion or other. I think you’re right to say that working with some of the classical texts requires a lot of this kind of stuff. But it can’t be an accident that these texts are stimulating this kind of philosophical activity today, can it?

      I myself don’t find much in the Analects that is either systematic or rationally compelling (in a narrowly understood sense of that latter phrase), but damned if the Analects hasn’t gotten me to think long and hard about human psychology, human motivation, and the conditions that might facilitate personal and communal harmony. Ditto for the Zhuangzi, and many other classical texts besides.

      I invest a lot of energy in reconstruction, as you do, and sometimes I think that I, too, am ‘making up’ the philosophy as I go along. I’ll look at something I’ve written and ask ‘Is this still Kongzi or is this now Sarkissian?’ But it’s not insignificant that the source material is prompting me to philosophize, and it’s not insignificant that I keep going back to that source material (for now, anyways).

      There comes a point, though, when one is walking a fine line between reconstructing and coming up with the philosophy oneself, when referencing the source material becomes more like tipping your hat than citing an substantive intellectual debt. But, even so, this can’t be unique to our own situation in Chinese phil. Many others in the biz must face similar problems–drawing upon the work of others while critiquing, extending, and reconstructing it. (Think of all the Kantians and Aristotelians and Humeans, etc.)

      Perhaps, though, you would want to say that the position of those drawing on these latter thinkers is different, because they don’t have to struggle with options 1-4, and they have less overt reconstruction to do. Is that right?

    • Hey Hagop; yes, I think with Aristotelians, Kantians, Humeans, and so on there’s less of an issue because it’s not like there are nearly as many argument gaps in the primary writings. Or complete lack of argument as in some cases! So, actually, I do think we’re unique in this situation. Indian philosophy has lots of meticulous argument, for example. On the other hand, maybe people working on later Wittgenstein have similar problems. And actually, more literary philosophical figures like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche might pose similar challenges. That’s not such bad company, I suppose.

  2. Using the Chinese source texts to construct a philosophy of one’s own seems to me to be very Chinese. Some may take it too far though.

    Does anyone know what the Chinese term is for “specialists” that Defoort says replaced the “masters?”

    • Hi Scott; she doesn’t say in the article or footnotes, but I would imagine 專家, possibly just 家, as in 中國哲學家.

  3. It would seem to me that with all the internal dissension within the Western philosophical tradition that appealing to something like Rorty’s Philosophy/philosophy distinction might be helpful in addressing this issue. The “death” or “end” of the systematic attempt to accurately represent Reality from the most general level of abstraction possible is an already well worn theme in both Continental and Analytic circles. So then, why should we even worry about whether the Chinese tradition fails to fit this big ‘P’ Philosophy mold?

    However, I don’t think Rorty’s notion of small ‘p’ philosophy as a kind of intellectual kibbitzing within the ongoing conversation of liberalism is broad or interesting enough to capture much of what is most valuable in the pre-modern Chinese materials.

    Perhaps a return to a passionate desire to live wisely–philosophy as a “way of life”–would better capture what is going on in the Chinese (particularly Confucian and Daoist works) corpus. But then again this would lead into the vexed issue of demarcating what counts as philosophy and what as religion (or some other culturally contingent aspect). I don’t think we can hope to find the necessary and sufficient conditions for philosophy in this sense, but we should be interested in making Chinese philosophy relevant to whatever cultural context we find ourselves in. And this would most certainly involve hermeneutic appropriation or a sensitivity to what is no longer of direct relevance to our situations. While I doubt that there is anything like the “timeless” problems of thinking, we should be concerned with reconstructing philosophy so as to deal better with the problems (both trivial and serious) we face on a daily basis.

  4. I’m sorry to be odd man out on this, but I don’t think I belong anywhere in those four categorical distinctions. I’m (perhaps unfortunately) in a position where I have no hope for the humanities (besides history) and where I am convinced of the truth of the claims made by certain thinkers who are included in the pre-Han text corpus.

    Defoort’s quote here is troubling: “Indeed, this may be something that Western philosophers tirelessly continue to do: strive for the ideal of objectivity or open-mindedness. Within the humanities this ideal can best be realized in confrontation with what is most different; and what is more different from our Western philosophical tradition than ancient Chinese thought?”

    Open-mindedness doesn’t sound like a particular goal for philosophers because they are involved in argument for specific propositions against alternatives (i.e. those propositions that negate the ones that they use as premises or state as conclusions). Now, there are things like “philosophical interest” that apparently go into account, but what more is that than an interest in the existence of equally valid groups of propositions (say, P1 and P2), where P1 |- Q and P2 |- Q, but (supposedly) P1, P2 |- ⊥? If the battlefield is merely rhetorical, and all we’re supposed to get is an “open mind” about things, I don’t see how philosophy stands to any service of any kind, or how it even claims to offer anything of the sort that it seeks. If models of the sort that I have just described really do exist, then what does a philosopher do if not just determine the non-empty intersect of classes P1 and P2 and try the proof for Q again?

    That leaves objectivity, and this may perhaps be naive view, but it wouldn’t hurt for humanities scholars to collectively put criteria for soundness (as empirical scientists do), and then undo the need to “seek objectivity” by just defining what they seek in the first place, and then look for that (again, as empirical scientists do). I seriously doubt that investigation of sentences, alone, regardless of their sources, leads to explanation about how the world works any more than a numerological ploy teaches us about the foundations of mathematics.

    The second thing that puts me off of Defoort’s lines is that they seem to claim that the inability to wangle some areas of ancient Chinese rhetoric into Western semantics or vice versa would in either way challenge us to become more open-minded or objective, especially when there are such issues at hand as the following: a.) pragmatics outweighing a more steadfast “objectivity” in deciding to call a proposition “true”; b.) clear objections necessitating clear assertions (P) and counter-assertions (~P), thus requiring some identification of equivalent claims (that is, something in Chinese that is P and something in non-Chinese that is P); c.) the contradictory propositions’ both being false in light of more authoritative propositions; d.) the idea that a distinction in one’s semantics cuases a hindrance in one’s cognitive ability to comprehend the distinctions made within a foreign semantics (that is, potential avowal of the Sapir-Whorf hypoethesis despite significant counter-evidence against it).

    Now, that’s a lot of disconcert for one paragraph, but I’m sure more thorough readers of Defoort’s article would be better suited to comment on said concerns.

  5. Hi Manyul, thanks for this very clear account of Defoort’s article!

    Actually, this spring, I had a very interesting discussion with my Taiwanese students about the two papers by Defoort and Raud. I think in particular Defoort’s paper is a wonderful teaching material for undergraduate students.

    Concerning myself, I would say that – pragmatically speaking – I belong to position 3. Thus said, althought I find her paper very clear and see her point, I somehow fear that this attempt of “defining” “Chinese philosophy” ultimately fails: I do not think that there is “one” Chinese philosophy at all (do Zhuangzi and Zhu Xi really belong to the same philosophical universe??). So the whole question seems to be another, a question concerned with the universality of Western philosophy (whatever this means) than with understanding so different thinkers like Zhuangzi or Zhu Xi…

    Maybe the attribute “Chinese” somehow functions like the attribute “religious”: “The invocation of religion, its concept no less than its historical manifestations, better enables one to highlight the most pressing questions of ethics and politics and give these concepts a renewed urgency…” (Hent de Vries, Philosophy and the Turn to Religion, p. 435) But who knows?! This is to say, Manyul, I understand your mood changes perfectly…

  6. Great discussion so far–congratulations Manyul for triggering it.

    I share part of the discomfort at the formulation of the question. I find it easier to assess and defend answers to this kind of question: Are some of the writings from the Chinese tradition philosophically interesting? Then, which ones, and why? “Philosophically interesting” will raise some of the relativism problems of the other question but I find them more tractable. A discussion can be philosophically interesting without corresponding to any particular item in the past or present Western philosophical agenda. It can be interesting without contributing in central ways to solving outstanding items in our current agenda. Something written by a famous Chinese thinker might still be philosophically dull or boring–even some things that attributed to otherwise philosophically interesting writers/texts. I don’t feel like I have to define ”philosophy’ to make such judgments. And I do not need to be surprised that people with different philosophical interests will construct different lists. Most of us can still recognize philosophy when we see it.

    And, obviously, many things written in Chinese texts may be interesting, even intellectually interesting but not particularly philosophically interesting. They can be historically, stylistically, poetically etc. worthy of note and study.

    Then the answers (aside from arguments about interpretation and the implicit relativity of what may interest us philosophically) fall out rather neatly. I find a lot of texts (portions of texts, lines of argument or dispute etc.) philosophically interesting and a lot more philosophically puerile. I am particularly delighted when I discover that something I had thought fell into the latter group, on reflection or in view of arguments given by colleagues e.g. on this blog, merit reclassification.

    But we can agree that there were no departments of philosophy in ancient China and there was not a social institution of professional philosophy–and probably the same goes for religion.

  7. It seems to me that the idea that old China had philosophically interesting texts is a shade too weak to be interesting. Nouns and dogs are philosophically interesting. Of course, Chad, you mean something a little stronger. When I try to strengthen the idea just enough to make it interesting, I come back to the idea that the texts are philosophically interesting because they are doing philosophy; or rather, because they are doing interesting philosophy, and not just in an odd moment, as a brief passage in a long novel. People whose concept of “philosophy” is more grandiose than mine might think I’ve strengthened the claim way too far.

    Is it enough to strengthen the claim this way instead: Some old Chinese texts are on the whole philosophically interesting to engage with?

    Manyul writes above, “The typical answers that I like to consider and grapple with are those that present systematic and rationally compelling arguments. That’s what pulled me into philosophy in the first place. So, … when I feel like I see those sorts of questions and answers in the Chinese material … then I find myself taking the position that there is clearly such a thing as Chinese philosophy.

    What I find especially philosophically interesting in early Chinese texts is the success they achieve without methods that rely on an ideal of the literal use of language, or methods whose main clear part or ideal image is logical (i.e. empty) arguments. But I don’t know how to engage with those texts well other than by those methods.

  8. Hello Chad; hello Bill. I’m somewhat inclined to agree with Bill that one’s preferred boundaries for the concept of philosophy do all the work in one’s finding something philosophically interesting. The idea of “defining a concept” has a negative connotation of arbitrary stipulation to some ears. I guess I think of defining ‘philosophy’ as fairly important, and not artificially stipulative, so long as we allow a broader sense (“more grandiose”) to be recognized in addition to a narrower sense.

    What I like about Defoort’s discussion is that she makes explicit what is at stake, often, in defining it more broadly or narrowly, particularly with respect to the type of value someone wants to place on it from his or her perspective. Some broad definitions of philosophy are intended to make the endeavor seem admirable (e.g. philosophy as questioning and wondering about deep meaning, or something like that), some not so admirable (e.g. philosophy as any display of wide-eyed wonder at things). Likewise for narrower definitions: philosophy as rigorous logical analysis of reasons for belief — admirable; philosophy as a particularly rigid set of impractical academic conversations that take place in a particular Western tradition — not so admirable.

    The question for me is often not just whether some text has philosophy in it (which Defoort’s question “Is there such a thing as Chinese philosophy?” seems to address), or is philosophically capable, but further, whether it is philosophically concerned with concepts that have relevance to current, on-going philosophical concerns. Maybe, Chad, that’s what you mean by “philosophically interesting.” Maybe I’ll get in trouble for saying this, but there’s a lot of Indian philosophy which is pretty clearly philosophy by all kinds of broad and narrow definitions, but that I don’t find really interesting. I suppose I could say the same about parts of Western philosophical inquiry…

  9. To your first point here, Manyul, I think one’s preferred boundaries do approximately none of the work toward one’s finding something philosophically interesting, and only a small part of the work toward one’s finding something what one would call “philosophically interesting”!

    ‘Philosophy’ strikes me as a word for which there isn’t much unity in idea or application; which means that I think of any precise conception as somewhat stipulative, and that it’s hard to get me excited about debates on whether early China had much “philosophy.”

    My own usual picture of philosophy, and the account I’ve used to orient students, is roughly that it’s the thinking/talking part of the intelligent attempt to answer certain kinds of questions –general and seemingly basic to important matters – about which we can’t yet agree enough (regarding concepts, answers, and/or methods) to license experts. Something like that.

    Hmm. On that conception, I suppose the difficulty about early Chinese “philosophy” becomes: to what extent did they recognize the kind of beast I’m calling “basic general questions”? (Has someone discussed this?) And I’m challenged to think harder about what I mean by that.

    • Bill, somehow I misread you — or did I? The account that you use to orient students sounds an awful lot like what I had in mind as definition, probably of the broader sort, which I certainly wouldn’t characterize as involving precision. So, actually, I’m inclined to think that we’re not in much disagreement about what we bring to the table when we wonder whether there is Chinese philosophy or when we find something philosophically interesting.

    • Sorry, Manyul, I meant to express just one disagreement with and one difference from you. The disagreement was only on your reading of me (see #9 par. 1). The difference is in what interests us in the early Chinese texts we find philosophically interesting (#7).

      Consider two different pictures of what it is to define a term or say what X is. (A) On one picture it’s about drawing borders, as I might lay a string around the beans on the table that are mine. (B) On another picture it’s about describing the nature or workings of a thing. When a type (A) answer is very enlightening, that means it helps us apply the label to the right things. A type (B) answer can be very enlightening without giving us much help toward labeling more correctly.

      At the beginning of your #8 and my #9, I took us to be talking about (A) stuff. I do think that a person’s type (B) answer about “philosophy” can make a difference to which things she finds philosophically interesting (not just what she finds “philosophically interesting”).

  10. Dear Colleagues,

    May I humbly direct your attention to an exchange of opinions between Carine Defoort and myself on this very topic in Philosophy East and West, 56(4), 2006? I’m not sure if it is possible/legal to post the texts of these articles on the web, but if your computer has access to the EBSCO databases, the discussion is available at

    In a week, we are having here in Tallinn a summer school on world philosophy,
    which will start with a round table on the topic of what could properly be called philosophy outside the European context, and Carine Defoort will also be participating. It would be great to have more feedback on the issue before that to make the discussion more fruitful!

  11. Rein, thanks for the heads up! I had been meaning to bring up your recent discussion of and exchange with Defoort in follow-up comments. Knowing that you’ll be discussing this with her in a round table next week gives me a good nudge to do it sooner rather than later. I’ll post something later today — I’m sure others will as well.

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