The Limits of Academic Philosophy?

I have lately been reading Frank Perkins’s marvelous book Heaven and Earth are Not Humane: The Problem of Evil in Classical Chinese Philosophy (Indiana, 2014). There’s lots of rich and provocative content in the book worth talking about, but at least for right now I want to focus on a different kind of question that Frank raises right at the beginning, on p. 5. Discussing the question of whether Warring States thought is appropriately labelled “philosophy,” he writes that “in practice, [this] is a question about institutions and the power of inclusion and exclusion… Certain boundaries are accepted in practice by almost all academic philosophers.”

In particular:

  • “It would be strange if not illegal to require ethical action as part of a philosophy major.”
  • “Direct involvement of the body is excluded. It would be controversial in almost any philosophy department to have students meditate in class.”
  • “Explicit appeals to authority are excluded from philosophy and taken as fallacious.”

Frank then adds that the issue is not really about philosophy as a discipline, as much as the boundaries we accept for academia as a whole, “which make it impossible for professors in any discipline to do what Zhuangzi or Mengzi themselves were trying to do.” Because the boundaries of academia seem “firmly set,” our choices are then either to ignore early China, or to approach it through these existing rubrics, all the while cognizant of the various distortions that this involves.

My question to you all is: to what extent do we really have to accept the boundaries of academic philosophy as set? Have any of you tried to push at these boundaries, and with what results? Are the three exclusions that Frank raises the key issues, or are there other exclusions (or problematic inclusions) that we might be concerned with as well?

Let me conclude by saying that my premise here is not that we can or even should want to do precisely what Zhuangzi or Mengzi was trying to do. But we might want to come closer to it, in one or another dimension, that academia/philosophy currently make easy. Thoughts?

16 thoughts on “The Limits of Academic Philosophy?

  1. Does Chan/Zen offer a philosophy? Is it possible to understand Chan without the experience it suggests is possible? Is it not rather that any attempt to ‘understand’ Chan must admit that it can only be an approximate, peripheral description, one that suffers from a lack of the core insight that illuminates the whole? So also with Zhuangzi or any similar philosophy that has some kind of ‘mystical’ experience (in Zhuangzi’s case, one without reference to metaphysical belief) at its core–some kind of similar involvement would seem to be necessary. Academic philosophical analysis is certainly valuable and necessary, but like all inquiries, it is best when aware of and honest about its limitations.

  2. I’ve had students meditate in class. It didn’t occur to me that it would be an issue. (And I’ve also failed students for plagiarism, which is a way of insisting that they be ethical.)

  3. I think that the limits to academic philosophy (especially in regard to non-Western philosophy) are not set in stone, and they are not limits to which many people would explicitly subscribe. I think that the limits (as I see them) are nevertheless real — set up by a certain indolent indifference combined with the professional necessity of doing something that is commonly recognized as being of value. I think this is changing — due perhaps as much to pressures from outside of philosophy faculties as much as anything else — but slowly.

    W/rt putting philosophy into practice, I’ve thought a fair amount about how to add a service learning component to an ethics class. I don’t know how philosophy colleagues would regard that, but it seems like the sort of thing that administrators might welcome.

  4. “Direct involvement of the body is excluded. It would be controversial in almost any philosophy department to have students meditate in class.” — Two quick thoughts when I read this:

    1) Meditation is as much mental as physical — I don’t think exclusion here is directed toward “the body.” Academic philosophy might be inclined to exclude meditation because it seeks, in the normal case, to achieve something, some kind of cognitive or supracognitive state, that can’t be assessed intellectually (though my long ago professor at Berkelely, J.F. Staal argued explicitly against that point in his book on mysticism).

    2) Sort of like Dan Robins, I’ve tried to use non-standard classroom exercises, most recently through target archery labs. No one in my 12 member philosophy department batted an eye; they liked the idea, in fact. Maybe Frank Perkins writes from his own experiences? Not sure what else he would base those claims on, I guess.

  5. One would expect explicit appeals to authority in the philosophy departments at certain Christian colleges, though not to an authority the Warring States philosophers would recognize.

  6. It can be tricky managing your own authority in a class. On the one hand, you want your students to trust you. On the other hand, you don’t want them to assume that just because you said it it must be right.

  7. These sorts of discussions have become noticeably common in religious studies as well; the pendulum has swung from methodologically questionable comparative religion to fierce analytic critique in the past 30 years, but it’s being noticed even in scholarly publications how this excludes intellectual engagement with outsiders. I would love to see a larger discussion of what happens when philosophical boundaries are rejected or modified.

  8. Great post, good questions!

    I would think that studying philosophy would shape one’s “ethical actions” outside the classroom. But it’s (thankfully) more of a “lead and encourage” approach, rather than a “force and compel” one. That seems healthy to me.

    (Coming from a former student) I like the idea of challenging academic philosophers to reconsider the power of bodies and movement. One of my favorite classes in college was a class taught by the artist Eiko Otake on 20th century Japanese art and history. It was cross-listed in both the East Asian Studies and Dance departments and regularly included movement, meditation and dance. The simple fact that we could take off our shoes and wear comfortable clothes and sit on the ground during class discussions totally changed the dynamic in the room (in a positive way).

    There’s also no shortage of research on the relationship between mental states and body language / physical positions (lots of especially good stuff in “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Kahneman). Why wouldn’t academic philosophers look to incorporate those findings in their own research and pedagogy? Seems to me like low-hanging fruit!

  9. Thanks for posting that, Steve.

    My claim about meditation was overstated, but my point wasn’t about what might be tolerated (particularly in classes on Asian philosophy) but rather about the current norms of academic philosophy. So my colleagues don’t care if I have students meditate in my classes, but if I argued that physical practices are part of philosophy and should be incorporated into the requirements for the philosophy major, they would almost all disagree. The same would apply if I argued that since we already have so many people trained in reading texts and making arguments, our next hire should be of someone trained in some physical practices, like meditation. A guess a good question to get at this is – if you were advising a graduate student going on the job market for philosophy, how much would you tell them to emphasize their use of physical practices?

    My original point was about what is implied in the label “philosophy” when used now in an academic context. Steve’s question about what can be done to resist those boundaries (if anything) is a different point but a great question. It would be interesting for someone to compile different strategies. Along with Susan’s example of service learning, I think would add study abroad for consideration as well. Steve, didn’t you do a class on philosophy as a way of life that tried to deal with some of these limits?

  10. Stimulating issues! I very much look forward to reading the book. Since I haven’t done so, I can only react to what’s been posted so far.

    I am entirely sympathetic to pushing the boundaries of philosophy. And if my colleague were to adopt some of these practices my immediate reaction would be to take it on faith that she knows what she is doing. (And, for example, Manyul could certainly demonstrate his proficiency at archery if there were any questions about it.)

    My general worry, though, would be precisely this: the question of competence (let alone expertise). Academics are notoriously prone to epistemically overreaching, and thinking they’re experts at things they’re not. I’ve read about and reflected deeply about the Zhuangzi, but what do I know about meditation, let alone the ‘sitting and forgetting’ he talks about? I could speculate, but I would have real doubts as to this. Did 南郭子綦 just decide to ‘meditate’ one day? Or is he in the middle of a practice that took years to cultivate to have any effect at all? If the latter, what’s the point of asking my students to meditate for a class or two, or even a semester?

    If someone has actual training that’s a different question. But even then it would boil down to a matter of faith in this colleague and her experience, and there’s at least some unease in that. I can assess a colleague’s intellectual acumen, her scholarly output, and her abilities as a teacher, because my colleague and I are part of a profession where such things are required in order to be a good professional. But the further we get away from these core competencies the more reticent I become at my ability to accurately judge, and so the more reticent I am to endorse the deviation. These concerns are even more pressing when it comes to incorporating anything like this into a major requirement as opposed to a single course.

    Also, I have more confidence at the utility of reconstructing the ideas in the texts we read than speculating at the practices of their purported authors. (What do we know about what Mencius and Zhuangzi ‘did’? How could I know that I am successfully appropriating their practices? What’s the payoff?)

    Regarding ethics: Is it strange or illegal to assign a project to students to take up an ethical cause of their choosing and, say, pen a paper advocating a position on it? I can’t see how, and I’m guessing everyone here would agree. (Actually telling a students: “Here is an ethical action, do it!” would be far more controversial, obviously, as would commanding students to ‘follow you’–as a master–into a moral cause.)

    As for appeals to authority, I just can’t take those seriously myself except as rhetorical devices, or except in cases where we have credentialed experts (e.g. medicine, the law, etc.) If we’re talking about appealing to moral authority (e.g. it’s right because the Pope said so), I just couldn’t ever find such a thing acceptable, and again I’m guessing no one is claiming otherwise. I’m guessing Franklin raises this because the texts are frought with such appeals.

    Franklin: As for advising graduate students, I suppose I would err on the side of caution and allow prudential concerns to dictate my advice here, trusting that if the student is passionate enough she will pursue the physical practices anyway and extol these on the market. I just couldn’t risk endorsing a practice that I have good reason to believe would probably hinder their prospects in the conservative environment that characterizes our profession.

  11. Frank, thanks for the clarification! But your concern seems to go way beyond philosophy to just about everything else in academia. The question of whether Warring States figures and movements should be labelled as philosophy is, to be sure, partially about what academic philosophers have at stake in acknowledging some activity as philosophical. But the same issue applies to any academic label and the academics who take it on themselves to police its use. Maybe the distinction is really between 1) pre-modern activities, the practitioners of which have left texts that were partly expressive but not wholly of their practice, and 2) modern academic activities, the practitioners of which are guided by norms of academia that are the result of a long process of delimiting “proper” academic activity in certain ways. Then, it isn’t necessarily an East-West issue as much as a modern-premodern one. Thoughts?

    • Great point. I agree that it is an issue with the structure of academia, and part of what I was trying to say is that philosophy has as much (or as little) claim to these materials as any other academic discipline. I’m not sure if that makes it an issue of modern v pre-modern rather than West v East. There was something peculiar about the elimination of what could loosely be called “philosophy as a way of life” that happened in Europe in the early stages of modernization, but I’m not sure if that is intrinsic to modernity or a result of some peculiarities of European culture.

  12. Talk of experimenting with meditation in class reminds me of Harold Roth’s essay “Third-Person and First-Person
    Approaches to the Study of the
    Laozi” in Teaching the Daode Jing. Readers may want to give it a read.

    Also, I am reminded of Jordan Paper’s work on mysticism. For example, in The Mystic Experience, Paper writes “Scholarly objectivity is often understood to require distance from the studied topic. But does this make any sense? Why would an analysis of the mystic experience by someone who admittedly not only does not understand it but is doubtful about its actuality be more reliable than an analysis by someone who does know the experience? We do not expect scholars of the visual arts to be blind or of music to be deaf: indeed, we assume that a scholar of art enjoys the subject. I suggest there is a bias remaining from the Enlightenment in this regard, for it is only religious experience and other that is handicapped by expectations of studies to be from those with no such experiences.” (p. 9)

    I’d also like to add that Perkins’ book is indeed “rich and provocative.”

  13. “Direct involvement of the body is excluded. It would be controversial in almost any philosophy department to have students meditate in class.”
    – At an Association for Political Theory annual conference I have attended, a presenter, whose paper was on Indian political thought, asked the audience to meditate under her direction before she began her presentation. (I found the practice a bit weird, though.)

  14. Jeremy, here are some data on the ethical effect of doing Western ethics
    I’m not sure what ethical effect one should expect from other branches of philosophy.

    Jeremy, I think Kahneman’s work in general (especially his work with Twersky) has been well noticed by ethicists and political theorists. I’m not sure what sort of use of “Thinking Fast and Slow” you have in mind. Could you give an example of an anglo philosophical inquiry or argument that should have taken into account a key idea from “Thinking Fast and Slow” but didn’t?


    The late Robert Nozick (author of e.g. Anarchy, State, and Utopia ) had undergraduates in one of his Harvard classes meditate. Holding hands, according to the rumor. I think it didn’t occur to anyone that this crossed any line of propriety.

    But yes, Frank, there were chuckles (at least among the grad students) about the pedagogical value.


    Hagop, you write, “Academics are notoriously prone to epistemically overreaching, and thinking they’re experts at things they’re not.” (I think you mean—prone to think mistakenly that they have knowledge about X adequate to the case, which in fact they don’t; rather than: prone to think mistakenly that they are among the best knowers about X.) Do you mean that that is more true of academics than of non-academics?


    Hagop, you write,

    I can assess a colleague’s intellectual acumen, her scholarly output, and her abilities as a teacher, because my colleague and I are part of a profession where such things are required in order to be a good professional.” But the further we get away from these core competencies the more reticent I become at my ability to accurately judge, and so the more reticent I am to endorse the deviation.

    I think the line of thought in the first sentence is not (A) “I can trust these aspects of my colleague because the hiring process in our profession checks for them,” but rather (B) “Most people in our profession can judge these qualities in others because most of us have these qualities, and having all three pretty much enables one to judge the three in others.”

    I think it’s true at least of anglo style philosophy that people who are very good at it are therefore very probably pretty good at judging the general intellectual competence of others—at least, the kind of intellectual competence or academic competence that crucially involves the communication skills necessary for intellectual collaboration (clear articulation, clear reasoning, good reading and listening).

    I wonder whether excellent meditation is the sort of thing such that the skill of practicing it tends to accompany skill in teaching it and skill in judging the qualifications of others as practitioners or teachers. Could well be — I just don’t know. Anybody?

    • “I think you mean—prone to think mistakenly that they have knowledge about X adequate to the case, which in fact they don’t” — Yes, Bill, that’s what I meant. It’s just an observation (including of my own behavior!). Academics may be more prone than others in general, but perhaps no more prone other widely-read, educated persons. I really don’t know.

      And yes, I mean B) for your second comment. Unfortunately, I can’t answer your last question.

      Let me say, in general, that these are sincere though off-the-cuff questions and comments I have about the worthwhile considerations being put forth in the original post and subsequent comments.

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