Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

Raud and Defoort (or, Defoort continued)

As promised, I have some remarks on the continuation of the issue that Carine Defoort broaches and that Rein Raud has responded to in a published discussion between the two of them (Philosophy East and West 56:4, 2006). It’s an issue about the demarcation of philosophy and what it means, and has meant, to call something “Chinese philosophy.” As Defoort has pointed out both in her original piece and in her follow-up discussion with Raud, it is puzzling how to understand ‘Chinese’ as an adjective that goes beyond mere historical-geographic placement, since “If philosophy were considered universal in its claims, as positive science is, the adjective would create a contradictio in terminis: there would be no ‘Chinese philosophy’ as there is no ‘Greek science'” (PEW 56:4, 628). Other disciplines, or endeavors, that presume universal scope could be added to the discussion: “Chinese math,” “Chinese logic,” “Chinese chemistry,” and so on. If ‘Chinese’ merely denotes the geographic placement of the texts and figures that are targeted, then it would seem like there is no separate discipline of Chinese philosophy, just philosophy and philosophers located in China at various times.

What’s really the issue here? As I understand Rein Raud, the issue is really about how philosophy as a discipline ought to conceive of itself in the globalized era. Parochialism threatens to make philosophy “able only to reproduce itself but not to evolve” (ibid, 620). Raud argues that a reasonable self-examination by philosophers would involve an important aspect: construction of “a more abstract external definition that would determine the social status and the role of philosophy vis-a-vis other cultural practices, such as religion, science, or literature” (621). Backing up a bit, here’s Raud’s internal/external definition contrast: an internal definition “would try to characterize philosophy as a mode of thinking — from within, so to say” whereas an external one “would describe the mechanisms at work in a sociocultural context that assign the status of philosophy to certain texts, authors, or schools of thought” (620).

Raud thinks that in fact there are criteria already implicitly in place in the Western intellectual tradition that express an external definition of philosophy, criteria that Raud thinks are fulfilled pretty well by the tradition of Chinese thought. He finds that there are roughly six such criteria (621-22):

  1. The individuality of thoughts is recognized. Views are articulated by identifiable personages, not attributed to divine revelation or received wisdom of folkloric origin (even if the aim of the views would be to explicate these).
  2. Whatever symbolic prestige philosophy has, it derives from its alleged explanatory power, the capacity to clarify the nature of things on the most abstract level (which is not the case with literature).
  3. Philosophy is dialogical. A philosophical work addresses others and is addressed by others, and this dialogical character is usually inherent also in the process of transmission of philosophical knowledge, which leads to the formation of schools (such as Neo-Kantianism), which do not strictly correspond to particular institutions (such as Cambridge University).
  4. Philosophy is cumulative. If a work has entered the corpus of philosophy, it will also stay there and may be considered productive regardless of paradigm changes (which is not really the case with science).
  5. The guild of philosophers normally claims independence from worldly powers and even a certain superiority to them, at least to advise and criticize, which is again derived from their allegedly deeper understanding of the nature of things.
  6. Philosophy is socially tolerant. Even though it may strive to attain what we think of as philosophical truth, a variance in views does not invite institutional punishment (which is not the case with religion). Philosophers have been burned at the stake — but not by other philosophers.

Raud’s goal here is to provide something like an uncontroversial definition according to which “the Western philosophical tradition meets these conditions in its entirety, while phenomena that are not considered part of it do not” (622). It isn’t meant to be normative or stipulative but largely descriptive I think. The strength of Raud’s account is that, as he argues, much of the Chinese tradition that we’ve come to think of as philosophical, also fits the criteria.

As it turns out Raud is the constructive, optimistic party to the discussion. Defoort’s response to Raud’s suggestions is long, repeating and elaborating on the points in her original essay. It is, in some ways, more pessimistic ultimately, as Raud notices in his response to her response. Briefly, I think Defoort focuses mainly on two sociological aspects of both the contemporary philosophical community in China and the Western one.

On the one hand, Defoort argues that since Hu Shih and Feng Yulan, the philosophical community in China has in general tended simply to assume “the legitimacy of Chinese philosophy” — or perhaps silently to ignore the issue. (What issue? The issue of, in the words of Feng Yulan that Defoort cites, whether “the philosophy of Chinese philosophers amounts to nothing, that China has no philosophy” (636).) She concludes that a “conclusive argument” for its legitimacy still has not been provided, to match the confidence and emotional commitment  that the Chinese intellectual community has in it.

On the other hand, when Defoort turns to the Western community, her analysis turns more overtly sociological, couching it in terms of tribalism. According to her account there is a sort of jealous guardianship of philosophy in the West, one of the expressions of which is the stout resistance of academic departments to recognize Chinese philosophy as philosophically worthy of staffing (though some of this has been overcome). The rhetoric of her analysis is sometimes amusing — intentionally, I suspect (642):

…we tend to forget that philosophy is a “love” affair that one has with “wisdom.” Love affairs are not always as innocent as the lifelong fascination with one’s partner: they make philosophers jealous, uncertain, and unfair toward others. … It is easy to recognize the threat posed by the enormous Chinese corpus of texts to the average Western professor, who will never master its difficult scripts. Like a jealous husband, he rejects the Chinese rival without knowing him.

More somberly, Defoort concludes on this note (ibid):

Of course, rational arguments and historical data, as presented by Raud and a large group of contemporary Chinese scholars, retain their relevance, as long as one respects their limits. The silence surrounding the disagreement, the relative inefficiency of arguments, and the emotional commitment to the topic suggest that something crucial is being left out: the uncomfortable predicament of being attached to something that one has no access to. Although increasing cultural contacts may allow Western and Chinese scholars to become more familiar with each other, and thus perhaps — not necessarily — to understand and appreciate each other better, there will always be some attachment to tribal habits, as there is to one’s own children. The lack of a perfect mutual understanding may be counterbalanced by some understanding of why we do not totally understand each other.


A quick reaction: I’m not sure I’m convinced by the tribalism analysis — i.e. roughly, that the Western intellectual community has a kind of “special” proprietary, arational attachment to philosophy as, say, a biological parent has to a child (beyond an attachment that one might cultivate toward an adopted child?). There’s something Mencian, and unconvincing, in Defoort’s analysis: tribal/familial attachment will likely carry the day, or something like that.

Philosophers can seem proprietary — just ask a philosopher what she thinks about professional ethics courses being taught by non-philosophers, or what she thinks about discussions of truth in English or Comp Lit departments — but I don’t think such attitudes are best explained from a sociological point of view. Rather, it is the nature of the philosophical endeavor, or the seeking-for-truth-endeavor more generally, to be universal in its aspirations — something Defoort explicitly acknowledges. Given such aspirations, what may seem like jealous attempts at ownership may be better understood as an unwillingness to let the boundaries of concepts become so sloppy that truth-analyses become impossible. That’s very abstract, but I’m a philosopher.

Comments welcome.

July 22nd, 2010 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学 | 18 comments

18 Responses to Raud and Defoort (or, Defoort continued)

  1. alexusmcleod says:

    Defoort is mistaken in holding that Chinese scholars have merely assumed and not argued for “the legitimacy of Chinese philosophy.” I’m in the middle of Zhou Guidian’s 秦汉哲学 right now, for example, one of the first chapters of which includes an argument, including citations of numerous other Chinese scholars, against the view that there is no philosophy in China. Perhaps she doesn’t see these arguments as “conclusive”…? But just what would count here as a conclusive argument, when we are considering the issue of determining the boundaries of philosophy? Something that convinces those not inclined to see China as having a philosophical tradition? That would be an obviously problematic standard.

    • Steve Angle says:

      Hi Alexus — I think that for Defoort, the issue is indeed whether the matter of legitimacy has been settled adequately. She’s certainly well aware of the debate back-and-forth, having co-edited three issues of Contemporary Chinese Thought (vol. 37, 1-3) on precisely this issue. For anyone interested in the multifarious “legitimacy” debate in China, these three volumes are extraordinarily helpful, translating essays by scholars with a whole range of perspectives.

      • alexusmcleod says:

        Thanks, Steve- I’ll check out those issues! My thought on this has always been that we (both Western and Chinese scholars) tend to spend *too much* time arguing for or against the legitimacy of Chinese philosophy, partly because of what Patrick says below–the boundary issue also seems to me to be at bottom normative rather than descriptive, and I just don’t see any reason why we *shouldn’t* engage philosophically with Chinese thought, or take it as itself philosophical.

      • Manyul Im says:

        Alexus, that’s really interesting. You’re shifting the burden; whereas Defoort seems to think the legitimacy of Chinese philosophy has to be argued for adequately, you’re suggesting that the default position can be that it is legitimate and if anyone has a problem with that, an adequate argument against its legitimacy needs to be provided.

        I suppose claiming the default position has to be based on something or other, however, which provides a decent prima facie reason for its presumptive status. I wonder what you, or anyone else, thinks that would be.

        • alexusmcleod says:

          I think there could be a methodological basis for such a default position. We generally gain more, one might argue, from a plurality of projects and ways of treating certain traditions–as philosophy, religion, or something else entirely, and if we should cease to take, say, ancient Chinese thought as philosophical and thus limit the possibilities of interpreting or using the ancient texts philosophically, the burden is on the proponent of this to show how reading the Chinese tradition this way is harmful to our understanding of the key texts or to cross-cultural understanding, etc. Kind of a methodological version of Mill’s libertarianism. Encourage scholars to engage with texts and traditions in a multitude of ways, unless we can show that there is something destructive or otherwise undesirable (parallel to Mill’s “other harming”), because we gain the most from such pluralism as experiments–whichever attempts are more successful are likely to show us which ways of understanding ancient Chinese thinkers are best. Basically, all of Mill’s considerations for libertarianism can be given for this kind of “methodological libertarianism”, I think.

  2. Manyul Im says:

    Here’s an interesting anecdote from my own history: I was asked a long time ago by a chair of a PhD granting department for some sources that he could read and refer to in making a case for funding a position in Chinese philosophy. I sent him to Feng Yulan’s history and Wing-tsit Chan’s sourcebook — two of the 20th century figures that Defoort describes as having shaped and presented the tradition in ways that made it more easily fit the traditional Western model of philosophical inquiry. Those two sources pretty much did the work in convincing that department and getting the position funded. I had sort of forgotten about that episode until now.

    Apropos of Defoort and Raud, sometimes I wonder why we have to do any more than that. That is, why not just go with Hu, Feng, and Chan and the rest of us who followed their interpretive trails? (I realize this sounds a bit schizophrenic, since I’m the one bringing up the worries through the Defoort – Raud discussion, but maybe this question is worth discussing.)

    • Steve Angle says:

      Whether “we” need to do more than that, and whether Chinese scholars might want something more or different, are two separate questions. One of the main threads in the “legitimacy” debate as it’s unfolded in China is whether viewing the Chinese tradition through the lens of “philosophy” (and the neologism “zhexue“), and as being made up of categories like epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, etc., and as answering questions that have been seen as important in the history of Western philosophy — whether THIS is something that is an apt or legitimate reading of the Chinese tradition. Is THIS something that Chinese scholars, concerned perhaps about the value of their own tradition(s)/culture(s), should go in for? None of those who deny that “zhongguo zhexue” is a “legitimate” category want to do away with the teachings of the ancient masters. They just want to view them through lenses more apt to the context and goals of the masters’ teachings. So new neologisms are invented: e.g., Zhang Xianglong regularly refers to Chinese “哲理 (zheli).”

      Now while I want to call attention to the way that this question might look differently in China than in the US, I also want to add a few qualifications. First, there is certainly more to say about what the relevant standard for “legitimacy 合法性” is. Certainly it is normative. Second, insofar as these discussions are taking place in an increasingly open global environment, with all sorts of cross-language and cross-border interactions, the distinction between the US discussion and the Chinese discussion blurs. Third, whether or not one thinks that “legitimacy” is a helpful category, we should note that some of what’s at stake here can be connected to the distinction between Defoort’s original categories 2 and 3. To some degree it is true (I think) that Feng Youlan, Hu Shi, et al read concerns from Western philosophy into their subjects, thus misinterpreting them.

  3. Raud’s goal here is to provide something like an uncontroversial definition according to which “the Western philosophical tradition meets these conditions in its entirety, while phenomena that are not considered part of it do not.”

    This strikes me as straightforwardly normative and not at all descriptive (and there’s of course nothing wrong with that); at the very least the boundaries between the descriptive and normative are fuzzy or porous if one is going to speak of “meeting conditions” of any sort.

    I hope to comment later on the “propietary” stuff after reading the material in your link.

    • Manyul Im says:

      Quite right, Patrick. Let me clarify. Raud, it seems to me, puts together a list (of six criteria) based on what he sees, descriptively speaking, as the criteria that philosophy (in the West) has in fact been using. But subsequently, he also seems to endorse this list as a set of criteria worth using; so, yes, he adopts a normative posture with it. Thanks for catching this.

  4. Manyul Im says:

    [An Aside: For anyone who might be able to make it to Estonia next week, here is the link again for the World Philosophy seminar that Rein Raud mentioned, in which both he and Defoort, along with Henry Rosemont and others, will be participating: summerschool.tlu.ee/world-philosophy/ ]

  5. Phil Hand says:

    I just wanted to make a rather grumpy linguist’s point here. It is a cause of continual frustration to me how philosophers, who work with language all day long, seem determined not to learn anything about it. A little bit of linguistics goes a long way.

    I understand that Defoort’s aim is to problematize the notion of Chinese philosophy, and that her pseudo-grammatical musings are just a starting point and shouldn’t be over-analysed. But it is irritating that she would use such a bad linguistic analysis to start her argument. There is no reason to assume that analyzing the words “Chinese” and “philosophy” would be particularly useful in helping us to understand “Chinese philosophy”. English multi-word phrases very quickly assume lexical connotations of their own. Attempting to decompose them ends up little better than argument from etymology.

    And how do philosophers end up with such bad instincts for making language judgments? There is nothing odd at all about the phrase “Spanish science”. There are tools to answer these questions these days. Google gives over 400,000 results for the phrase, including “As Spanish science declined during the second half of the 16th century…” – perfectly comprehensible.

    Moreover, in language usage, real people are stunningly good at flicking between compositional and non-compositional readings of phrases. Imagine a dialogue about British philosophy (or just find one on Google). Real people can fluidly and confidently move between understanding it to mean “philosophy practiced by British people”, “philosophy practiced in Britain”, “philosophy with distinctive British characteristics (in Britain)”, “a distinctive kind of philosophy, that has been traditionally favoured in Britain”, “a distinctive kind of philosophy that has been developed in Britain and not in other places”, etc. etc. etc.

    None of which really affects the meat of the debate which you’ve been having. But I’m just asking that in this particular debate, no-one repeat Defoort and start attempting grammatical/semantic analyses of the string “Chinese philosophy” – or if you do, get someone competent in the semantics of English to work with you.

    • Manyul Im says:

      Thanks, Phil; point taken — an excellent one. (Let me add “German engineering” to the well-understood phrases.)

      But as you note, the musings are for entry into a difficult issue. Could there be something going on in the targeted Chinese tradition that is different enough, so that it is a serious question whether we can legitimately describe it as philosophy-done-by-the-Chinese or perhaps better as some other kind of endeavor done-by-the-Chinese? I do agree with you that the linguistic analysis will not settle that issue. That’s what I like about Raud’s approach, actually. He focuses on the kinds of socio-intellectual mores that tend to be used to identify an endeavor as philosophical.

  6. Bill Haines says:

    Offhand it seems to me that by far the primary context for the question about Chinese “philosophy” is the context of curriculum decisions in Western universities, regarding what is to be taught and who is to be hired in “philosophy” departments. Here a central issue is the relative evaluation of China versus other controversial candidates, so there really has to be something specific to say about China.

    A secondary context is the question of the grounds on which fans of Chinese “philosophy” might recommend it qua philosophy to philosophers.

    A third context might be in an argument such as the following: “I have defined philosophy as X. But hmm, the Chinese stuff looks like philosophy to me, yet it doesn’t fit my account. Therefore I should reconsider my account.”

    A fourth context might be in disputes over the relative admirability or depth of different cultures. Perhaps there is a legitimate place for such disputes, if only in such curricular decisions as whether to establish a Laputan Studies Program.

    A fifth context might be in sociological debate about the impact of “philosophy” in societies in which it arises.

    Have I missed any important ones?

    I don’t see how the kind of thing Raud calls an “external definition” – i.e., as he says, a “definition that would determine the social status and role of philosophy vis-à-vis other cultural practices, such as religion, science, or literature” (621), such as his list of six critera — could (as such) have much relevance to the first two of these contexts. It might be relevant in the third context, but only if the project of the discussants is to define philosophy as a name of a tradition or social fact, rather than philosophy as an intellectual enterprise. It might have some relevance to the fourth, but what Raud calls an “internal definition” (one that is concerned with the content of the trains of thought that might be called “philosophy”) would seem more relevant. In the fifth context, an “external definition” might be a bit more important than an “internal definition.”

    One part of Raud’s “external definition” seems to be doing most of the work of making his list plausible, but seems to depart from externality and correctness: “2. Whatever symbolic prestige philosophy has, it derives from its alleged explanatory power, the capacity to clarify the nature of things on the most abstract level (which is not the case with literature).

    (I’m not sure what “symbolic” is meant to add or subtract here.) This is the only item on his list that might seem to help distinguish philosophy from “science” (one of his main announced aims) and from other intellectual fields. But does it? And is it really “external”? And doesn’t it overlook the normative parts of philosophy such as ethics, politics, epistemology and logic?

    As Manyul reports above, Raud also characterizes his distinction between “external” and “internal” definitions as follows: “An internal definition would try to characterize philosophy as a mode of thinking—from within, so to say—while an external definition would describe the mechanisms at work in the sociocultural context that assign the status of philosophy to certain texts, authors, or schools of thought.” I think it’s obvious that the main thing that makes an inquiry “philosophy” is the questions it addresses; but that sort of criterion seems offhand to be off Raud’s radar.

    • Bill Haines says:

      Sorry, that last was just irrelevant kvetching and probably wrong.

  7. Ben H says:

    I think it is kind of bizarre to *argue* that Chinese philosophy is philosophy. It seems a bit like arguing that Chinese people live in houses and fish from boats. If you start drawing diagrams and labeling the elements of a Chinese house with their Chinese names, people may just get confused. If you go look at how the Chinese live and watch them sail up and down the river, though, it will be pretty obvious that they have boats, even if their boats are, say, neither canoes nor dories.

    Based on my experience reading Chinese philosophy, I am persuaded the reason Western philosophers aren’t sure Chinese philosophy is philosophy is a simple lack of familiarity and understanding. Many Chinese texts are admittedly quite challenging, and some, like the Analects, could be honestly mistaken for something else if not carefully studied. However, if someone used to reading Hobbes and Kant stumbled across some of the works of Plato, without having been told they were philosophy, she might really not be sure until she had studied them for a while! The opening passages of the Euthydemus are a good example here, essentially a series of verbal jokes. Substantial stretches of the Symposium read a bit like the Zhuangzi (outlandish parables, satire, word play . . .). If we can write the same kind of analytical articles about arguments and concepts in Chinese philosophers that we can about Greek, though, then it should be clear to anyone who is really reading that they are philosophers. So I think we just need to keep doing that.

    • Bill Haines says:

      Yes, but as you sort of suggest in your comment in the “Mengzian Answer” string, it has to be done in articles of “Western” philosophy to get through.

      • Ben H says:

        To get through to Western philosophers, yeah, it may need to be done in articles on Western philosophy. I mean, it isn’t the Chinese who need convincing, right? Either that, or articles in journals that folks who read Western philosophy read . . .


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