Introductory Lectures on Chinese philosophy

Yale’s Moral Philosophy Working Group and Asian and African Philosophy Reading Group welcomes  Professor Bryan Van Norden of Vassar College and Wuhan University for a series of introductory lectures on Chinese philosophy. No previous knowledge of the topic is necessary. Van Norden will speak on four different topics; each is an hour of presentation followed by an hour of Q and A. The University is happy to provide lunch on Saturday so please email if you plan on joining for lunch. More information is on the poster and below.

Learning from Chinese Philosophy

When Europeans first encountered Chinese Confucians, Daoists, and Buddhists, they immediately recognized them as serious philosophers.  However, this attitude changed due to the influence of imperialism and pseudo-scientific racism, so that (beginning with Kant) Chinese philosophy was dismissed and banned from academic philosophy in the West.  Recently, works like my Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto have challenged the status quo and demanded that we return to the cosmopolitan ideal of multicultural philosophy.  This lecture provides several examples of the profound and distinct philosophical debates that existed in China on issues such as consequentialism, human nature, ethical egoism, relativism, and skepticism.

Confucian Virtue Ethics

Confucianism can be interpreted as a form of virtue ethics, offering systematic accounts of what it is to live well (human flourishing), what character traits contribute to living well (virtues), and how people develop those traits (ethical cultivation), given what our innate dispositions and capacities are (human nature). However, Confucian philosophers offer accounts of these topics that are intriguingly different from the Aristotelian versions of virtue ethics more familiar to contemporary Anglo-European philosophers. In this talk, Professor Van Norden explains Confucian virtue ethics, focusing on the example of Mengzi (“Mencius”).  Mengzi, a 4th-century BCE Chinese philosopher, is not as well known in the West as Kongzi (Confucius), but he is considered one of the greatest and most influential Confucian philosophers. This talk does not assume any previous familiarity with Chinese culture or Confucianism.

Therapeutic Skepticism in Daoism

The only Daoist philosopher that most Westerners have heard of is Laozi (“Lao Tzu”), the supposed author of the Classic of the Way and Virtue. However, among experts on Chinese philosophy, Zhuangzi (“Chuang Tzu”) is often considered the greatest Daoist philosopher.  Zhuangzi presents arguments for skepticism, relativism, and for the superiority of “knowing how” over “knowing that.”  However, it is not obvious how these arguments are consistent with one another. In this talk, Professor Van Norden explains some of Zhuangzi’s most intriguing arguments, and suggests that Zhuangzi intends these arguments to be “therapeutic.” This talk does not assume any previous familiarity with Chinese culture or Daoism.

Neo-Confucian Debates over Weakness of Will

The Confucian classic the Great Learning states that one must hate evil “like hating a hateful odor” and love the good “like loving a lovely sight.” In this presentation, Professor Van Norden unpacks the cognitive content of these metaphors and explains what role they played in Chinese debates over the relationship between moral knowledge and moral action.  In particular, Van Norden explains how the great “Neo-Confucian” philosophers Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming appealed to the same metaphors in their argument over whether weakness of will is possible.


Bryan W. Van Norden is James Monroe Taylor Chair in Philosophy at Vassar College (USA), and Chair Professor in the School of Philosophy at Wuhan University (China). A recipient of Fulbright, National Endowment for the Humanities, and Mellon fellowships, Van Norden has been honored as one of The Best 300 Professors in the US by The Princeton Review. Van Norden is author, editor, or translator of ten books on Chinese and comparative philosophy, including Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy (2011), Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto (2017), Readings in Later Chinese Philosophy:  Han to the 20th Century (2014, with Justin Tiwald), Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy (2nd ed., 2005, with P.J. Ivanhoe), and most recently Classical Chinese for Everyone: A Guide for Absolute Beginners (2019).  He has also published multiple featured op-eds in the New York Times, and written a Ted-Ed video on Confucius that has been viewed over a million times.  His books and articles have been translated into Arabic, Chinese, Danish, Estonian, Farsi, German, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, and Turkish.  Van Norden’s hobbies are poker (he has played in the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas) and video games. His website, which includes a bibliography of primary and secondary sources on Chinese philosophy, may be found here.


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