Introducing Chinese Philosophy in Phil 101

I want to take up an issue that Bill raised in the last thread (China’s First Philosophers?, comment #18): integrating Chinese philosophy into introductory courses in philosophy. Have folks taught or taken courses that try to do this? Or tried to imagine such a course? What works and what doesn’t? What challenges are there? Are they any different from the challenges involved in integrating a variety of western texts into a single introductory course?

The one such course I’m most familiar with is a comparative introduction to philosophy that Chad Hansen teaches at the University of Hong Kong. (I was a tutor on the course a few times when I was a grad student.) One thing that helps make this course work is that (as those who know Chad’s scholarship might expect) a significant theme of the course is the ways in which the two traditions differ—so some of the issues that might otherwise make it hard to treat Chinese and western texts side-by-side get dealt with front and center. (Of course you might not consider that an advantage if you think Chad’s all wrong about the ways in which the traditions differ.)

What other approaches might work? Bill’s suggestion was that the Mohists might fit well in a course that also touches on utilitarianism. And I know there are a few regulars here who’ve included Chinese texts in courses on virtue ethics (though mostly at a more advanced level, I think). So there are ways of linking up materials from the different traditions thematically.

I guess my own main worry (and now that I’m putting it in writing it seems like a pretty dumb one) has been that getting at some of the ideas I’d want to cover if I were teaching Chinese texts requires a degree of contextualisation and interpretive work that wouldn’t suit an introductory course that isn’t specifically devoted to Chinese thought. (One reason for thinking this is dumb: maybe this would be a good way to teach skills in close reading. And of course the interpretive issues I’m thinking of don’t arise only with ancient Chinese texts.)

Well, those are my (rather scattered) thoughts. What do you think an introductory course that incorporates both Chinese and western materials might look like? (Or does anyone think this would be a bad idea?)

25 thoughts on “Introducing Chinese Philosophy in Phil 101

  1. Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that I did have some success last fall teaching parts of the Milindapañha in an introductory course last fall; the progression from Plato through Descartes to nonself worked pretty well, I thought.

  2. Dan, that oughta teach’em. Sounds very interesting.

    I taught a course once like this:
    1. Euthyphro, Apology, Crito (and maybe another)
    2. Analects
    3. Plato’s Republic.
    Lots of the themes and motifs are similar, and it seemed to work. Also the Analects is well suited to being mentioned in tiny bits while one is discussing the Greek stuff.

    – – –

    I think what one wants for the first material in an intro ethics course is something that directs the students’ attention to normative issues in a very very mildly theoretical way, and thus distracts them from general issues about relativism-or-not. One thing that works for me is to put the Ten Commandments on the board and ask for additions and deletions to make it a better summary of morality “in your personal opinion.” Once students get involved in this sort of discussion they believe ethics is a topic. They find themselves trying to offer general theories of ethics, at first in the form of additions to the list such as the Golden Rule.

    The Analects can be, in a way, a larger version of the same thing. I don’t think it requires a great deal of background. One trick is to assign to each student several questions such as “What is Confucius’ view on friendship?” and then call on students at random to give brief reports, evidence, and criticisms of Confucius’ view.

  3. Bill, I’m pretty sure I’m going to steal that Ten Commandments trick someday.

    You assign different students different questions?

  4. I have dozens of questions for dozens of students, and each student gets several of them. No two get the same list. I’ve only done this a couple of times; it’s a method under development.

    I’ve done the 10C thing often though, and it’s powerful. I write my own versions of the commandments, using one or two words, after handing out the full bible text for completeness and horror. I run the discussion like a business meeting. A specific amendment is proposed, discussed, perhaps amended, and then voted on (vocally), and if there’s a broad consensus the change is made, along with some comment about how of course this doesn’t mean the minority is wrong.

  5. Yes, the Upanishads and Buddhist texts (like the Questions of King Milinda) are great for personal identity. I’m teaching an independent comparative philosopy course, and the transition from the Sixth Meditation to the Upanishads and then various Buddhist selections (including Milindapanha) works well. (At least for me; my poor students were too dazed and perplexed, because I went over the stuff too quickly… the result of squeezing in as much Chinese philosophy as possible later on this semester.)

    The ancient Chinese texts can be used in introductory ethics, I suppose. Joel Kupperman uses most of the Analects and the inner chapters of the Zhuangzi in the introductory comparative philosophy course (the other texts are the Upanishads, Dhammapada, Descartes’ Meditations and Mill’s On Liberty). The lecture content is similar to what’s in his CLASSICAL ASIAN PHILOSOPHY. I’ve been TA-ing for that course over several semesters, and I’d say it’s a successful course. His lectures on the Analects are especially insightful and I’ve learnt very valuable things from them. He takes a virtue ethical approach to the Analects, with Analects 4.2 as the launching point. Situationist psychology plays a pretty big role too (that seems to be true in David Wong’s reading of Confucius as well). Confucius and Mencius were aware that the vast majority of people simply conform to good behavior in good times, because that’s what most people around them are doing; but in bad times they rob, kill, in order to survive. The junzi, on the other hand, are reliably virtuous, and are not subject to situationist psychology. This reading makes the Analects relevant to modern psychological research, and Harman’s criticism of virtue ethics using situationist psychology (the typical experiments cited are the Good Samaritan, the Stanford prison experiment, and Milgram).

    I stay away from Zhuangzi Ch.2, Gongsun Long, Hui Shi, etc. on metaphysics and logic. If I can’t understand what their arguments are, how can I teach them? I’d like to know if anyone has had success teaching Zhuangzi, Gongsun Long, etc., though. And Mozi as well (which I will be teaching three weeks from now).

  6. In addition to virtue ethics, Confucianism fits in well with sentimentalists so if you start talking about Enlightenment ideas (in particular people like Hume) a little Mencius would be a good addition.

    If you do Plato, Feng Youlan might not be a bad call since his reformulation of qi/li references and is somewhat influenced by Plato. A sort of “comparative philosophy in action”.

    And while it is somewhat trite, the dialectic of yin and yang is an interesting counterpoint to Hegelian/Marxist dialectics.

  7. Boram, your report of JK’s teaching is interesting and helpful to me. I haven’t found my own students especially gripped by problems about how to be more stably good (though they’re fascinated by the experiments). But maybe this is because when I’m on that topic my students too easily sense the preacher in me.

  8. Speaking of yin and yang again:

    According to Elisabeth Hsu, the pedagogy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in China has relied on principles of Maoist dialectics (from Mao’s essay ‘On Contradiction’) to exlicate the hoary notion of yin/yang (which I happen to think is *not* a dialectical concept, whether we are inclined toward Platonic, Hegelian, Marxist, or even Maoist dialectical reasoning; for a brilliant although at times bewildering discussion of dialectic, see Roy Bhaskar’s Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom, 1993).

  9. Assuming we’ve chosen a conception of philosophy that is neither parochial nor provincial nor neo-colonialist, that is, one that endeavors to be truly global, I wonder how one might justify *excluding* non-Western philosophical worldviews/ideas from any introductory philosophy course.

  10. Hi Patrick

    I’m sympathetic with your exasperation, and I’ve learned a lot from your posts. But I don’t share your wonder, and I’ll try to say why.

    “Excluding” suggests ruling out on principle, which is different from not including. I might not include anything Dutch in my curriculum, simply because I don’t know of anything good enough, or because I think Spinoza is too hard. That’s not excluding the Netherlands.

    There’s room for very very little in an Intro Phil curriculum. Anything included has to be short, easy, intensely edifying in the opinion of the instructor, tightly connected to the rest in a coherent whole, and tightly connected to other valuable philosophical work, especially things in the rest of the curriculum. Those are culture-neutral criteria calling for judgment calls on the basis of which the individual prof might not include anything Asian. There are other ways to remind American students of the existence of the external world, such as newspaper articles about everyday life in Pakistan that seem to have been written with today’s Aristotle reading in mind. There are always such articles in the daily paper.

    You write, “a conception of philosophy that is neither parochial nor provincial nor neo-colonialist, that is, one that endeavors to be truly global” —

    I disagree with the “that is.” Mathematics isn’t parochial, provincial, etc.; but it doesn’t endeavor to be global either. To a significant extent philosophy is like that.

    Over on the “China’s First Philosophers?” thread, there’s some discussion of a conception of philosophy that is international in the way that mathematics is international, but includes the Mozi and excludes the Analects.

    Intro Phil courses tend not to include Christian theology, partly for Dutch reasons (above) and partly because Christian theology seems to many of us to be tightly bound up with grossly wrong and parochial ideas. (Something’s being wrong helps qualify it as “parochial” rather than “not yet appreciated everywhere.” That’s why globalism isn’t necessarily parochial.)

    Many might have similar reasons for staying away from the sophisticated Indian material. Another reason might be the thought that the general thrust of much of the Indian material is not in the direction of social involvement. One wants to teach things that tie in closely with the main other good things.

    I don’t share all these views, but I find it easy enough to sympathize with them, as with yours.

  11. I think another and worse reason for neglecting Indian and Chinese materials is the West’s permanent amnesia about our Asian philosophical roots. I’m thinking especially of (what I imagine to be) India’s influence on Greece, and Confucianism’s helping spark the European Enlightenment.

    The other connections, of course, I’ve forgotten.

  12. Bill,

    At least one reason you suggest for non-inclusion implies a lack of sufficient acquaintance with non-Western philosophies which, by my lights, is (today) inexcusable. And the reasons for “not including” you cite should apply with equal vigor to Western thinkers/thought, and I suspect they do not. And I doubt, in practice, that “culture neutral” criteria are relied upon in making decisions of this sort: were that the case, I think we would see far more inclusion of non-Western traditions in such courses than we do now.

    Look, I think you’d agree that most Western philosophers are simply massively ignorant about non-Western traditions, with the exceptions once more proving the rule (and few seem willing to do anything to remedy the situation; and things will not change until the professional training of philosophers changes). As long as that remains the case, I think we’re entitled to make inferences of one kind rather than another when it comes to speculating why non-Western philosophies don’t make their way into the curriculum, a default presumption of sorts; in which case the reason(s) I proffer is more plausible or probable than those you’ve provided. So while the reasons you adumbrate here are possible ones, I doubt they’re regnant or commonplace, and I still think they’re (normatively) unjustifiable for pedagogic and philosophical reasons. I’m not prepared to make the argument here, but I think there is a professional and ethical obligation to include non-Western materials.

    I admit to being rather perplexed about the statement that “Another reason might be the thought that the general thrust of much of the Indian material is not in the direction of social involvement.” What? Provided I have some inkling of what you’re trying to say here, I rather think such a judgment is more applicable to much of the philosophy in the analytic tradition during much of the twentieth century. (I trust you’ve read, for instance, Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian, 2005). I think your generalization is simply wrong and, in the end, indefensible.

    Theoretically we can imagine all sorts of reasons that are not, strictly speaking, provincially or parochially motivated or blissfully ignorant of neo-colonialist desires and ambition, but when push comes to shove, I do think the reasons, at bottom, for not including non-Western material are disturbing ones that lack intrinsic philosophical rationale. I have saved well over fifty letters of correspondence with authors of entries for the SEP and in virtually all them there is an admission of ignorance of non-Western material on their assigned topics. They even refuse (with a few exceptions) to acknowledge the existence of such material! Let’s imagine these selfsame professors teaching introductory philosophy courses.

    I agree with your comment about “the West’s permanent amnesia bour our Asian philosophical roots,” a subject well covered in Thomas McEvilley’s The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies (2002).

    In short, I too would be sympathetic to the views you outline (but don’t necessarily share) were I to think they were the primary or common reasons for excluding non-Western material, but I’m convinced they’re not.

    I suppose it’s my turn to invoke a “hermeneutics of suspicion”….

    Incidentally, I don’t in any way construe this on the order of attempting to “remind American students of the existence of the external world,” rather, I see it as demonstrating to students that philosophy is not the private property or exclusive prerogative of the West, a conviction that is inert and innocuous unless one’s pedagogic praxis shows why and how this is in fact the case, hence the proverb: The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

  13. Thanks, Patrick.

    I’ve done my share of objecting in referee reports about neglect of India. I don’t think writers for on-line philosophy encyclopedias quite get that they are writing for a worldwide audience. On the other hand … but nevermind that.

    Anyway, I say using Asian material in an intro phil or intro ethics course is a good thing. I do it myself, proselytize for it, and plan to do both more. (I don’t think not doing it is inexcusable on the part of the individual, but maybe it is on the part of a whole department. When I think “intro phil” I think of a kind of course that is taught in many many sections each term, mostly to nonmajors.) I use little bits from India and more from China. There’s a lot I don’t know about what’s available from India, partly from – not lack of effort, but maybe lack of imagination or intelligence in directing my efforts, and lack of time to check out ideas, beyond the long hours I’ve put in on that. This thread has given me some ideas.

    When I teach World Religions or Asian Thought I make it into an intro phil/intro ethics course really, and India is usually represented there by the Sermon at Benares, the Dhammapada, and the Gita. But I’d love to have things that better meet the kinds of standards my semi-me was talking about above.

    I am massively ignorant of all traditions, and not by free choice. I’m way behind on everything. Most of my reading choices for years have been dictated by urgent deadlines, real or imaginary, connected with employment or hopes of same. (I’m writing so much here in recent days because I’m avoiding an urgent task. And here I’ve stepped into something that makes me sweat and rewrite.) Hence I buy books and drool over them (the one you mention by Sen for example), and there they sit, wet and lonely. This year I’m not teaching, and in between me and most of my books lie thousands of miles of rock and molten iron. The books I shipped here (HK) all stink of smoke from the ship.

    “I think your generalization is simply wrong and, in the end, indefensible.” This was the view that “the general thrust of much of the Indian material is not in the direction of social involvement.” Yes, the cagy phrasing is a cheat. Here it is exactly as I mean it: I acknowledge my ignorance but at the same time am under the impression that the broad theme of the Indian tradition is in the direction of transcendence rather than practical social action. (I was thinking of intro ethics courses, and the comparison I had in mind was with the broad normative thrust of the Western tradition of secular moral philosophy, or roughly Aristotle, Kant, and Mill. For a discussion of intro phil courses in the narrow sense, the impression wouldn’t be relevant.) I’d love to be corrected, and even if I’m not corrected I’d love a list of old exceptions. I’ve purchased secondary literature to help me investigate, two books last month; but here you are.

    More generally: What are the best few influential student-accessible short old Indian books of good philosophical argumentation on a topic or topics of wide interest and importance, such that the importance and arguments aren’t heavily and overtly dependent on premises from revelation? (There’s a fuzzy line between revelation and empirical reports that come exclusively from some meditation adepts; I don’t want to be too inflexible, but I like philosophy texts to be models of something students can do during the term in a paper.) I’m willing to drop “influential” and “wide interest” to save the rest, and I’m willing to lower the standards for degree of argumentation in exchange for manifest insightfulness, practical public-spiritedness, or narrative compellingness.

    But if I can’t have both good argumentation and freedom from revelation and quasi-revelation, then I feel a little less like I’m showing my students that India has philosophy, and a little more like I’m showing them that India has people. Which I think is urgent.

  14. “What are the best few influential student-accessible short old Indian books of good philosophical argumentation on a topic or topics of wide interest and importance, such that the importance and arguments aren’t heavily and overtly dependent on premises from revelation?”

    Here are books, large parts of which when not in toto, I think could fit the bill [I’ve ignored the ‘short’ and ‘old’ part, the former because one could select parts from some of the longer works here and put into a ‘reader,’ etc., the latter because it strikes me as too idiosyncratic or arbitrary]:

    *Bilimoria, Purushottama, Joseph Prabhu, and Renuka Sharma, eds. Indian Ethics: Classical Traditions and Contemporary Challenges. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007.

    *Chakrabarti, Kisor Kumar. Classical Indian Philosophy of Mind: The Nyāya Dualist Tradition. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994.

    *Chari, V.K. Sanskrit Criticism. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1990.

    Ganeri, Jonardon. Philosophy in Classical India. London: Routledge, 2001.

  15. Ooops! I was not finished and somehow hit the wrong key so here’s the rest:

    *Ganeri, Jonardon. Philosophy in Classical India. London: Routledge, 2001.

    *Ganeri, Jonardon, ed. The Collected Essays of Bimal Krishna Matilal: Mind, Language and World. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    *Ganeri, Jonardon, ed. The Collected Essays of Bimal Krishna Matilal: Ethics and Epics. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    *Ganeri, Jonardon, ed. Indian Logic: A Reader. London: Curzon Press, 2001.

    *Ganeri, Jonardon and Heeraman Tiwari, eds. Bimal Krishna Matilal: The Character of Logic in India. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998.

    *Grimes, John. A Concise Dictionary of Indian Philosophy. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996, new ed.

    *Halbfass, Wilhelm. On Being and What There Is: Classical Vaiśesika and the History of Indian Ontology. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1992.

    *Iyer, Raghavan. The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi. Santa Barbara, CA: Concord Grove Press, 1983 (first published in 1973 by Oxford University Press).

    *King, Richard. Indian Philosophy: An Introduction to Hindu and Buddhist Thought. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1999.

    *Larson, Gerald James and Ram Shankar Bhattacharya, eds. Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, Vol. IV, Sāmkhya—A Dualist Tradition in Indian Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.

    *Matilal, Bimal Krishna. (Jonardon Ganeri and Heeraman Tiwari, eds.). The Character of Logic in India. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998.

    *Matilal, Bimal Krishna. Logic, Language and Reality: An Introduction to Indian Philosophical Studies. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1985.

    *Matilal, Bimal Krishna. The Navya-Nyāya Doctrine of Negation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968.

    *Matilal, Bimal Krishna. Perception: An Essay on Classical Indian Theories of Knowledge. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1986.

    *Matilal, Bimal Krishna. The Word and the World: India’s Contribution to the Study of Language. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

    *Matilal, Bimal Krishna, ed. Moral Dilemmas in the Mahābhārata. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1989.

    *Mohanty, J.N. Classical Indian Philosophy. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000.

    *Mohanty, J.N. (Bina Gupta, ed.). Explorations in Philosophy: Essays by J.N. Mohanty, Vol. 1, Indian Philosophy. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    *Mohanty, J.N. Reason and Tradition in Indian Thought. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1992.

    *Perrett, Roy W. Hindu Ethics: A Philosophical Study. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press, 1998.

    *Phillips, Stephen H. Classical Indian Metaphysics. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1997.

    *Potter, Karl H., ed. Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, Vol. II, Indian Metaphysics and Epistemology—The Tradition of Nyāya-Vaiśesika up to Gangeśa. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977.

    *Potter, Karl H., ed. Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, Vol. III, Advaita Vedānta up to Śamkara and His Pupils. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1981.

    *Potter, Karl H., ed. Presuppositions of India’s Philosophies. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1991 (first published in 1963).

    *Potter, Karl H. and Sibajiban Bhattacharyya, eds. Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, Vol. VI: Indian Philosophical Analysis, Nyāya-Vaiśesika from Gangeśa to Raghunātha Śiromani. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1993.

    *Ram-Prasad, Chakravarthi. Knowledge and Liberation in Classical Indian Thought. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

    *Ram Prasad, Chakravarthi. Advaita Epistemology and Metaphysics: An Outline of Indian Non-Realism. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002. [Alas, prohibitively priced]

    *Ranganathan, Shyam. Ethics and the History of Indian Philosophy. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2007.

    *Sharma, Arvind. A Hindu Perspective on the Philosophy of Religion. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1990.

    *Sharma, Arvind. The Philosophy of Religion and Advaita Vedānta: A Comparative Study of Religion and Reason. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.

    *Siderits, Mark. Indian Philosophy of Language. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1991.

    *Smart, Ninian. Doctrine and Argument in Indian Philosophy. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1964.

    *Warder, A.K. A Course in Indian Philosophy. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2nd ed., 1988.

    *Zilberman, David B. (Robert S. Cohen, ed.). The Birth of Meaning in Hindu Thought. Dordrecht: Reidel, 1988 (Vol. 102 of Boston Studies in Philosophy of Science).

    Out of alphabetical order:

    *Crawford, S. Cromwell. Dilemmas of Life and Death: Hindu Ethics in a North American Context. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995.

    I would assemble a separate list for Buddhism, although it is covered in part in some of the texts above.

  16. I meant to ask for the selection of candidate main readings for intro phil courses to show that the Indian tradition has philosophy — that is, selection of a few short things displaying “philosophical” excellence and representative of the tradition (if not by agreeing with its broad thrust then by being old and Indian).

    I understand if the problem is that I’m asking you to make Sophie’s choice. But I think I’m now in roughly the same position I was in before.

  17. I’m inclined to think that in Philosophy 101, too much content is bad, whether it is Western, South Asian, East Asian, Native American, Latin American, African, or Boston Confucian. It gives students the wrong impression of philosophy, namely that it’s more about sampling the smorgasboard of worldviews than about acquiring a broadly philosophical way of thinking about the world. Any material that can teach the latter is good, but not all the material out there can do it so well. And usually, the less “systematic” philosophical texts do it better. So, I’m inclined to do more Plato than, say, Aristotle; more pre-Qin Chinese texts than, say, neo-Confucian. Remember, we’re talking about 101–Nagarjuna is fascinating but I’m not sure it does more good than harm for an intro student to think of everything as beyond assertion and negation. There’s something to introducing them to “the disease” as Wittgenstein might say before tossing “the cure” at them. Once the student is on the road toward thinking like a philosopher, then the door can open up for questioning particular methods and approaches. But, like I’ve already said, not every text in the various traditions can do that. This is a pedagogy issue first, I think, and a canon issue second. That doesn’t make the canon issue unimportant, but trans-canon choices in 101 have to abide by what we’re trying to do in an intro course, wouldn’t you agree?

  18. While I’m thinking about the issue, I should add some thoughts I have about such an aim–i.e. of introducing students to a broadly philosophical way of thinking.

    Maybe it’s controversial that there is a tradition-independent “broadly philosophical way of thinking about the world.” I tried to address an aspect of this in an earlier post. Let me say something more about it. I don’t think there is tradition-independence of philosophical thought; *philosophy is Western* in an important sense. “The philosophical” is a Western concept in origin. What counts as a philosophical way of thinking is largely constrained by how the concept has been understood and continues to be re-understood in Western thought. I’m pretty sure that there is no non-Western concept that maps accurately onto it. It doesn’t follow from that that such thinking does not occur in the non-West. But it’s important for Philosophy 101 students to understand how the concept of philosophy originates in Greece and develops over time into the present. To that extent, any intro to philosophy has to include, I think, some reasonable subset of Western philosophical works that are pivotal in the history of the concept of philosophy: some sampling of Plato’s dialogues, Descartes’ Meditations, Hume’s Enquiry, Kant’s Prolegomena, Hegel’s Phenomenology, maybe Quine’s Two Dogmas or Naturalizing Epistemology, and I’m sure I’m leaving off someone’s favorite here.

    Two concessions: I myself have never taught more than three, maybe four, selections from the aforementioned list in an intro course; also, I’m not sure how much of some these could simply be read and understood in primary text for intro students. My comment above (#21) about the pedagogical advantages of less “systematic” texts might apply (i.e. it’s really hard to teach Hegel in intro).

    Nonetheless, acquiring familiarity of the concepts of *philosophy* and *philosophical thinking* requires, I think, some familiarity with such works of the West. Otherwise, I think a student is ill-equipped to see, or even to argue about, “what is philosophical” about a particular non-Western text, figure, or tradition. So, if there is some principled reason for exclusion, or at least “triage” treatment, of non-Western philosophy in an intro, it could be related to time-constraints, given that some Western things very central to understanding *what philosophy is* need to be given priority.

  19. Patrick, I’d like to hear more about why you think it’s inexcusable for a working philosopher not to be acquainted with non-western philosophies. I tend to agree with Bill (#15) that this is an issue more for philosophy programs than for individual philosophers.

    Though I wouldn’t go so far as Stephen in #22. We should be able to teach outside our areas of expertise, at least at an introductory level, and if you’re working with well-chosen texts it’s possible to get students to engage with them without setting yourself up as the one who’s going to tell them what it all really means. The key is choosing texts well, and I suppose that’s where being uninformed could be real trouble (it’s certainly been my main trouble in teaching outside my own areas of expertise).

    Manyul, how important is it, do you think, to acquaint students with the concepts of philosophy and philosophical thinking, as opposed to the activity?

  20. One definition of Philosophy I set before my students, and the one I like, is that it’s the study of matters of general continuing importance that still confuse us so much that we don’t have ways to certify experts (but we might tomorrow). I think it’s very important for students to have that concept, under whatever name. I choose texts that are perspicuously models of thinking for oneself, and use them to train students to think for themselves. Which means basically: try to formulate your view on something, check it against what else you think is obvious, revise, repeat – and do it together.

    I think my duty to communicate What Philosophy Is amounts to the duty to communicate that concept and that practice (and the fun of it), and direct students to good examples and discussion-partners in history.

    I try to bring out at some point the empowering idea that this conception of philosophy is very much about translating what we grasp by sensibility into words. That is, it presupposes that our sensibility or gut has some authority or knowledge, and that putting it into words helps toward clarity and checking. I try to make it clear that those advantages are connected to the value of democracy, freedom/respect, occasional adversary process, and bringing everybody into the conversation (even, but not especially, dead foreign songsters).

    I agree with Manyul in 21 about less systematic texts. Thales and his ilk are helpful in bringing out the basic concept of philosophy, since students can be got to try to think things through from his position, i.e. from his sort of background knowledge. I try to avoid materials that frighten students or distract them from doing philosophy themselves. Often it’s best to read just a page or two for a meeting (newspapers articles aside). That can make it easier to include nonWestern material (especially if some of us get help finding pages). By high-quality argumentation I don’t mean highly technical argumentation. I’d count, say, the Four Noble Truths or Analects 13.3 on rectification of names, because they’re more or less manifestly arguments, the thought is bold, the conclusions are big, and the premises are supposed to be ones that the listener can more or less see to be true on her own.

  21. Dan, good question.

    I think especially with philosophy–maybe with a few other activities–careful self-reflection on the activity is a very important part of the activity itself. Philosophy as an activity is greatly enhanced by, if it does not properly encompass, “meta-philosophy.” To borrow from Justin in another post, the plumber need not be a theorist about plumbing to fix the leaks, (plumbers don’t need a theory, say, about which has priority–praxis or principles, or whether plumbing has principles that are generalizable or particularistic, capable of axiomatic rendering, and so on; but in my experience they usually can explain pretty well what needs fixing and what options I have for fixing it; and then most of them can actually fix the thing on budget). But someone thinking philosophically should have more than just some passing idea of what what it means to think philosophically, in order to do it well. Philosophy, in some ways, just *is* meta-theoretic: philosophical thought is in large measure thought about ways of thinking. So questions about principles and how well they generalize, for example, come up naturally.

    I’m reminded of the scene in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure where Bill and Ted run into Socrates. Ted: “Now what?”; Bill: “I don’t know; philosophize with him, dude!”; Ted, to Socrates: “Dust in the wind; all we are is dust in the wind…” To philosophize without simply quoting high-minded song lyrics from the seventies, pithy lines from the Daodejing, or simply being an expert contrarian (being able to think of counter-examples quickly) requires understanding what kinds of questions and answers philosophy is after. It’s not easy to say what that amounts to, but exposure to thinking about beliefs, truth, certainty, doubt, and so forth explicitly in the name of philosophical inquiry, can give someone a pretty good idea. So, I think it is very important to acquaint students with the concepts of philosophy and philosophical thinking, as *part of* giving them practice in doing philosophy.

    One very fortunate fall-out of doing this is what I alluded to earlier: to appreciate or to evaluate what has philosophical value in non-Western material (not to mention Western material), someone has to understand what philosophy is and how philosophical value can plausibly be construed. It’s really something of a disservice to philosophy students for me just to tell them that something has philosophical merit; I should teach them how to fish for that themselves.

  22. Manyul and I were writing at the same time.

    Thanks, Stephen, for the recommendations in #20. I’ll look them over closely (though I won’t be teaching for at least a year and a half). Alas, Patrick, the books I bought recently weren’t on your list! Thanks for the list though; it will be helpful.

    On the subject of generalizations about Indian philosophy, from a position no less ignorant than when we last met: here’s maybe a slightly better statement of what’s bugging me.

    What I seem to hear is this:

    (A) “For Me to feel better I can destroy my sense of myself (and maybe my sense of everything else too) and/or magnify my sense of myself to see myself as one with Omnipotence and All and thus invulnerable. In fact nothing bad can really happen to anyone, if only because nothing is really real (except the Invulnerable); there’s really nothing to worry about. Hence concern for duty and concern for others (imaginary love, or practical harmlessness and help) is a tool and a side-effect of my quest for/against myself. (If you happen to find yourself caring about others for their own sake, that’s only ambiguously admirable; in a way it’s an imperfection. Put your concern for them into practice by telling them the above.) Philosophical debate is for working out the fine points of these axioms.”

    There’s a line of thought that’s similar in some ways to (A), that strikes me (and I imagine most of us) as right:

    (B) “Principles and other people ultimately matter more than does my comfort and entertainment or even my life. A fortunate thing about human psychology is that I’m probably not going to be very happy until I really appreciate that. Meditations or sabbaths can help, as can friends and family and involvement in community projects. I should identify with larger concerns the way some people identify with themselves. That is, I should stably feel that if I lose my life, that’s not the worst thing in the world. Philosophical debate is for working out whether that’s all true, and the details.”

    I want to set aside for a moment the question whether (A) really is the main line of Indian philosophy. I certainly don’t know that it is. (Though if it’s not, I’d really like to be shown in some way that doesn’t take very long.)

    (A)strikes me as being spiritually unwell.

    Patrick (and others), do you agree with me on that point about (A)? I mean, setting aside for a moment the question whether (A) can even be found anywhere in Indian philosophy.

    (I think Anscombe in “Modern Moral Philosophy” does a nice job of highlighting the moral shallowness of some lines of recent Western moral thought; but I think it’s shallowness rather than ickiness. As for having an invisible friend and ritually eating him, I don’t defend it. On the other hand … but I’ll stop.)

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