Amy Olberding, who is in the Philosophy Department at University of Oklahoma, has edited an APA Newsletter due out this Fall in which several people in my field address the state of the field, particularly with respect to Ph.D. training. Here’s the list of contributors: Stephen Angle, Roger Ames, Donald Munro, Justin Tiwald, Bryan Van Norden, David Wong, and myself. There are also two contributions from two department chairs giving their perspectives on the issues, Hugh Benson of Oklahoma and Leslie Francis of Utah.
In addition, Olberding has compiled a list of Ph.D. granting institutions in the U.S. who have faculty, in any department or program, who specialize in Asian philosophy. The list includes the names and disciplines of those faculty, so it should be very useful indeed for prospective graduate students. Olberding has also compiled the numbers and percentages of job listings for the past five years in the APA’s Jobs for Philosophers for non-Western specializations of various types. Yeoman service!
I’m not sure exactly when the issue will be out, but when it is, it should be available at this link. In the interim, I’ve pasted below about half of my contribution to the newsletter. Comments are welcome, of course. I’ll re-announce the link and welcome comments on the whole document once it is out.
(Also, I will be getting back to more philosophical/textual stuff soon; I’m just busy with beginning of term things–teaching one new course and two sections of a totally revamped intro!)
Taking Stock: A State-of-the-Field Impression
Two years ago, I was struck by the possibility of an impending crisis in doctoral-level training for Chinese philosophy. Thanks to Brian Leiter’s posting of my concerns on his Leiter Reports blog, those who shared my concerns continued the discussion at a variety of levels. The invitation extended by Amy Olberding to contribute to this newsletter provides an excellent opportunity for me not only to take stock of my impressions of the state of the field two years thence, but also to discuss some important aspects of graduate training in Chinese philosophy that have come up in relevant discussions with colleagues since. Two caveats: First, I don’t pretend to know enough about the field of South Asian, or Indian, philosophy to have any informed impressions about “Asian” philosophy or “non-Western” philosophy; my comments here are limited to what I can say with relative confidence about Chinese philosophy specifically. Second, much of what I have to say is by way of impressions based on personal experience and conversation; so I’m sure there are empirical issues that I end up taking for granted which could and should be investigated better.
As far as I can tell, not much has changed with regard to the state of the field, at least institutionally speaking. A vacuum still exists here where very high-profile scholars have left their positions at the most highly regarded philosophy programs, either through retirement or lateral moves ultimately to Hong Kong (more about Hong Kong below). In that sense, the aspects of the field that concern me have not changed in the past two years, nor has there been any word, official or otherwise, that it will in the near future. The lone stalwart in terms of a Ph.D. program in philosophy, with high-profile scholars solidly in the field of Chinese philosophy (Roger Ames and Chung-ying Cheng), remains the University of Hawai’i. If not for Hawai’i there would be no well-established Chinese philosophy program right now, period. By “well-established” I mean one that has a relatively long track record of having productive faculty and training successful scholars in the field, and hence having an associated, high reputation. I should qualify this by saying that I’m thinking only of the past 30-40 years or so. In the course of conversation with others in the field, live and in blogs, I’ve faced two, related objections to what I have claimed about the field.
On the one hand, some have objected that there couldn’t really be a crisis-level problem here since, by my accounting, there really only ever were three such programs—Hawai’i, Stanford, and Michigan. But in fact, I think that makes the the loss of two of them much more prominent; and gaining back one or both of them would have proportionally significant impact.
On the other hand, some have objected more strongly, from the other direction: there couldn’t really be a crisis because there have always been, and continue to be, numerous well-established Ph.D. programs in the English speaking world in Asian literature, history, language, or other disciplines; and training in Chinese philosophy may be gained at them. Likewise, as others have chimed in, there are numerous Ph.D. level programs in the Chinese-speaking world that are well-established in my sense, though perhaps they either do not have or do not produce scholars who publish primarily, if at all, in English. But it is Chinese philosophy after all, why should I privilege English language scholarship? This is a formidable objection, or set of objections. I will not be able to respond to it to everyone’s satisfaction because the objection brings up issues about methodological and disciplinary differences that are not really appropriate to “resolve” as much as to let such differences exist. There are also sociologically contingent facts about philosophical inquiry and English, or European languages more generally, that are not necessarily binding but that are difficult to overcome. So, I’ll say what I can; I think the objection forces me to make certain concessions and qualifications but for the most part I stand by my impression of the vacuum at the top of my field.
It may seem parochial or imperialistic to think that scholarly training in Chinese philosophy has been centered in the United States, in philosophy departments more specifically. I don’t desire either of those epithets so I remain open to discussion that may change my mind. But my belief is based on what I, and some others with whom I’ve discussed this, regard as two important contemporary aspects of “the field” as we conceive it.
First, although Chinese philosophical literature may be approached from any number of disciplinary interests, a distinctively philosophical approach takes “truth-directed” engagement with the claims, tacit assumptions, and theories found in the literature to be primary. So, historical, linguistic, or cultural accuracy and plausibility of the interpretation one gives is important, but aiming for them is undertaken for the sake of the further activity of philosophical evaluation, assessment, or some philosophical use of the views one interprets. Such use may take the form for example of adoption, perhaps in some suitably modified form, as an ethical, political, or metaphysical view. Or, one may use the understanding of a view that is not a contemporary option but that is internally coherent, to gain some kind of understanding of the situated nature of a corresponding contemporary philosophical view; that kind of distancing via comparison might produce improvements to how one thinks about a contemporary view. Or, perhaps there are other philosophical uses in the offing. Minimally, a philosophical approach aims to provide a truth-assessable account of the literal meanings of the sentences in the text for some philosophical purpose or other. These are generally the approaches that have been taken by scholars trained at Hawai’i, Stanford, and Michigan in the philosophy programs there.
However, unless I have been meeting all the wrong people at AAAS meetings, scholars in other disciplines by and large do not find this sort of engagement with the literature interesting. Based on personal experience, I expect many to have mild to strong disdain for it (“Surely you don’t take any of Mencius’s arguments seriously, do you?” I’ve had one prominent historian say to me.) Because of this disciplinary difference, philosophical study of Chinese philosophy in, for example, the East Asian Languages and Cultures program at Columbia University will be very difficult to pursue with much enthusiasm on the part of the faculty currently active therein. Secondly, general philosophical training at a graduate level will also be very difficult to gain in such a department. Finally, it will be that much more difficult to gain employment within a philosophy department with such a degree and with the sorts of letters of recommendation one is likely to acquire. There may be exceptions and of course difficulties can be overcome; nonetheless, I think these considerations speak loudly on behalf of at least half of my claim—that study of Chinese philosophy has been and probably will continue to be centered, if at all, in philosophy departments.
But why think that the other half of the claim is true—that it has been centered in philosophy departments in the U.S. rather than, say, in China or Japan (which has produced some of the best Sinological work on philosophical texts)? This is a more complicated issue and I make the following points with varying levels of confidence. I am fairly confident that the aforementioned philosophical approach to the texts has nearly exclusively been written in English language publications. That is no accident; the style of analysis is one drawn from the approach favored by English speaking philosophers who specialize in the history of Western philosophy, particularly of Ancient Greek philosophy. There is a similar approach that is more prevalent in the contemporary Chinese-speaking world but that differs in important ways…