Olberding: “Degenerate Skepticism and the Thieves of Philosophy”

Amy Olberding has published an essay called “Degenerate Skepticism and the Thieves of Philosophy” on the “Department of Deviance” website. She explains the essay’s origin:

An essay presented at a special APA session on what Chinese philosophy can contribute to contemporary philosophy. There are increasingly many sessions at APA meetings pitched to offer the non-specialist an entry into “non-western” philosophy. Rarely are these attended by anyone who is not already a specialist in “non-western” philosophy. The essay here is not about how Chinese philosophy can contribute to contemporary debate. It is instead a polemic about the folly of this question in the current atmosphere within the discipline.

6 thoughts on “Olberding: “Degenerate Skepticism and the Thieves of Philosophy”

  1. I thought I would append a slightly more hopeful comment to this posting about Amy’s brilliant, caustic, and deeply gloomy essay. It’s true that every time there’s some kind of “we need to be more open” gesture, we hear just the kind of uninformed “degenerate skepticism” that Amy skewers. And it’s also true that sessions like the one she describes at the APA are often pretty empty of those at whom they are aimed.

    At the same time, there were a bunch of new jobs this year. Departments across the country decided, for a variety of different reasons, to consider expanding into Chinese (or Asian, or Non-Western) philosophy. It remains to be seen how many of the searches succeeded, as well as how many of those with multiple disjuncts ended up hiring people doing Chinese/Asian/Non-Western philosophy. But I think that there is no question that Chinese philosophy within philosophy departments in the US is growing and increasingly vibrant.

    Finally, for what it’s worth, I’m not so sure I would say the same for more traditional sinological study of Chinese traditions of thought: there are a few folks at top universities, but it’s pretty bleak beyond that, from what I can see, and the AAS is almost completely devoid of philosophy/thought panels. I mention this in response to Amy’s comment that “…all while many of my own specialist colleagues abandon the discipline for academic departments where they can expect far better.” I am sure she has some specific cases in mind, and I don’t deny that this might happen. But I don’t think that’s the trend.

    • Oh, I certainly think it’s a trend, and if you’re having a hard time thinking of examples, consider Yours Truly–not to mention all of my students over the years. You’re quite right that there aren’t many philosophy/thought panels at AAS conferences, but (a) that says more about the AAS selection committees than it does about philosophy/thought in Chinese studies today, and (b) if you’re not finding much philosophy/thought, I have to wonder whether your personal definition of “philosophy/thought” is a bit degenerately skeptical (in Amy’s sense) as well. We tend to get tired of hearing that what we do isn’t philosophy because we’re not in philosophy departments.

      If you really need other examples, how about these, just off the top of my head …

      Anthony J. Barbieri-Low
      Stephen Bokenkamp
      Peter K. Bol
      Erica F. Brindley
      Robert F. Campany
      Karine Chemla
      Constance A. Cook
      Scott Cook
      Christopher Cullen
      Carine Defoort
      Benjamin Elman
      Paul van Els
      Lothar von Falkenhausen
      Daniel K. Gardner
      Romain Graziani
      Michael Hunter
      Lisa Indraccolo
      Lionel Jensen
      Martin Kern
      Anne B. Kinney
      Esther Klein
      Keith N. Knapp
      Michael Lackner
      G.E.R. Lloyd
      On-cho Ng
      Michael Nylan
      Yuri Pines
      Fabrizio Pregadio
      Michael Puett
      Sarah A. Queen
      Heiner Roetz
      Elisa Sabattini
      Haun Saussy
      David Schaberg
      Christian Schwermann
      Edward L. Shaughnessy
      Nathan Sivin
      Rudolf Wagner
      OIiver Weingarten
      Thomas Wilson
      Robin D.S. Yates

      You’d have to let them speak for themselves, but my guess is that none of them would be happier in a philosophy department. And no one could pretend that they haven’t contributed to understanding Chinese philosophy.

      (If you don’t find your name on this list, please don’t be offended–I had to write this in haste.)

  2. Hi Paul, c’mon, surely you know me well enough to know that I have enormous respect for the historically/textually focused work on Chinese thought of you and the folks on this list? You and I have talked about this plenty of times. The issue isn’t whether these approaches are valuable! At most what I am questioning is whether sinological studies of Chinese philosophy are (1) growing, and (2) continuing to draw “specialist colleagues” away from philosophy and into sinological studies of philosophy. My non-scientific sense had been that — sadly — this is not so much a growth field right now, because of larger academic trends. But I would be happy to be mistaken about that!

    • Within a broad context of retrenchment in the humanities–I certainly agree with you about that–my sense is that there has actually been growth in Chinese philosophy. Empirically speaking, I’m pretty sure there are more positions now than in the past. But I still think a large proportion of students seriously interested in Chinese thought are drawn more toward non-philosophy departments, and the vexed reception of Chinese philosophy within philosophy departments has a lot to do with it. My perspective might be biased because that’s exactly the kind of student I attract. But I do have a pretty broad view of the field precisely because I dabble in multiple disciplines, so I don’t think my perceptions are totally off-base.

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