Liu Reviews Bruya, The Philosophical Challenge from China

In the current issue of Metaphilosophy (47:3), JeeLoo Liu has published a review of Brian Bruya, ed., The Philosophical Challenge from China (MIT, 2015). She gives paragraph-long summaries of each of the thirteen chapters, and then concludes with some critical remarks, which I will excerpt below.

“…This book presents a rich array of philosophical topics. It showcases the research orientations and fruitful ideas of scholars who have been engaging Chinese philosophy with analytic philosophy. Bruya has done a fine job of organizing the invited entries and making them connect with one another. There are various philosophical questions that can spark further discussion arising from these chapters: for instance, whether reason and emotion could be sharply divided in our moral motivation, whether one should adopt different moral principles in the private and the public realms, whether morality should be restrained in politics, and whether we should embrace a different worldview in which nature is continuous with human activities and imbued with human values….”

“…The title, however, is inaccurate: the book does not fully present “the philosophical challenge from China.” There are much richer philosophical resources both in traditional Chinese philosophy and in current philosophical development in China. Many a chapter in this collection gives only a skimpy introduction to some philosophical ideas in Chinese philosophy, while the whole chapter seems to be devoted to explicating Western philosophy instead. In certain cases, the authors provide only a sketch of some Chinese philosophical concepts, leaving out the complexities of the philosophy itself. Each chapter introduces some notions derived from Chinese philosophy that could lead to a new way of thinking, but the book as a whole fails to capture the fundamental differences between the two traditions and their underlying worldviews. There seems to be an intentional avoidance of some really tough issues; as a result, the analysis does not get to the bottom of Chinese philosophy. For example, due attention is not paid to what Ivanhoe calls “heroic” metaphysical views—“the kind of metaphysical beliefs that would be very difficult for a modern person to embrace, since they can- not be reconciled with views that are now accepted by science” (231)….”

“…This book will be very useful for scholars working in Chinese philosophy to learn the possible directions one can take, but it will not likely inspire one group of targeted readers: those analytic philosophers who have up to now not been receptive to learning more about Chinese philosophy. Of course, unless one is willing to be open to developing philosophical literacy in other philosophical traditions, no book can do the trick of making one face the philosophical challenge from outside.”

One reply

  1. I’m coming late to the game here.

    I think JeeLoo gives an unfair and inaccurate representation of the book in her final evaluation. She says that the title is inaccurate. Her basis for saying so is:
    1. There are richer resources elsewhere.
    2. The chapters give skimpy introductions to Chinese philosophical ideas.
    3. The book fails to capture fundamental differences between the two traditions and their underlying worldviews.
    4. There is an intentional avoidance of some really tough issues, and as a result the book does not get to the bottom of Chinese philosophy.

    On this basis, she concludes that analytic philosophers will not be inspired by it.

    Frankly, I can’t follow her logic that these four premises, if true, necessarily lead to the conclusion that the title is inaccurate or that analytical philosophers won’t be inspired by the book. Let’s assume the premises, if true, do lead to the conclusion and assess each premise.

    Premise 1. Is it true that there are richer resources elsewhere? What does Liu mean by “richer”? Does she mean that those resources are attempting the same thing that is attempted in this book and yet do a better job? There are many very good resources in Chinese philosophy, but there aren’t many that do what this book does: engage concerns in a variety of subfields of analytic philosophy specifically from the resources of the Chinese tradition. I list some in the introduction and claim that this book is part of a trend. If Liu thinks there is a group of philosophers out there who are doing better work than this group (or those I mention in the introduction) at engaging current analytic philosophy from the resources of the Chinese tradition, I would like to see that list. It’s true the book doesn’t include everyone working in the field. No edited volume does. Is it true that others are doing a better job than the authors here? Again, I would like to see the list. If by “richer,” she means something else, then she is asking this book to do something beyond its specific purview, as explained below.

    Premise 2. Do the chapters give skimpy introductions or do they give minimal introductions to Chinese philosophical ideas? In the introduction I explain that the model for these chapters is to give only the minimally necessary context to engage the issue and to refer the reader to further background information elsewhere so as not to distract from the core argument. The focus is intentionally on the arguments, not on the background.

    Premise 3. She doesn’t back up this claim, so it is hard to evaluate. As for worldviews, I think she’s correct, but that would be a different book. As for the fundamental differences, I explain in the introduction that what may appear at first glance to be the assimilation of Chinese thought to current analytic concerns actually turns out to be an opportunity to reassess and reorient current analytic concerns. But this opportunity comes about only through the engagement of the argument in each chapter. The authors don’t make grand generalizations. The claims are narrow, but the implications are broad. That methodological approach is intentional. If she finds the approach flawed, she should explain why.

    Premise 4. Again, her claim here is vague. What are the really tough issues that are intentionally being avoided? Are they the generalizations? Yes, those are intentionally avoided, but those aren’t the only tough things about doing philosophy. I think the really tough thing is what the authors here are doing–meeting current philosophers on their playing field.

    Will the book inspire analytic philosophers? Well, that’s a longshot to begin with, and only time will tell, but Liu’s argument does not lead to that conclusion. In fact, I think she is exactly wrong about what would and wouldn’t inspire. The chapters in the book intentionally do not provide rich backgrounds in Chinese context and do not generalize about fundamental differences. Instead, they focus sharply on narrow concerns. In each chapter, however, the conclusion reached has broad implications for the subfield if followed. The book is a challenge to current thinking because it exposes problems and opens doors to new directions.

    For more accurate and balanced reviews, I refer the reader to:
    John Ramsey’s in the analytically oriented Autralasian Journal of Philosophy:
    (Ramsey notes two legitimate limitations of the volume: an imbalance in representation of traditions and in gender of contributors. I cop to both of these. The former was difficult to avoid, but I have sincere regrets about the latter. In fact, I should have invited Professor Liu.)
    Hans Van Eyghen’s in Comparative Philosophy:
    (I think Van Eyghen gets it right when he says, “Readers who expect general information about Chinese philosophers will be disappointed but this was never a goal of the book.” )

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