Workshop on Early Chinese Philosophy in Context

The Department of East Asian Studies at Princeton University hosts:
“Philosophy of the Past: Early Chinese Philosophy in Context”

A One-day Workshop With:
PAUL GOLDIN (University of Pennsylvania)
JANE GEANEY (University of Richmond)

On: February 22 (Sat) 2014

Please see the announcement below. The workshop is open to all, but we ask for pre-registration. Please note that we cannot be responsible for meals and accommodation. If you wish to attend, please RSVP to Mercedes Valmisa at

Philosophy of the Past:
Early Chinese Philosophy in Context

Proposal for a One-day Workshop in Early Chinese Philosophy

Date: Feb 22 (Sat) 2014
Venue: Department of East Asian Studies
Organizers: Martin Kern, Mercedes Valmisa, Sara Vantournhout

1. Background

The organization of academic institutions in different disciplines has a determining influence on the organization of knowledge, and often leads to arbitrary fragmentations of thinking. The fact that the discipline of Philosophy has been separated as a distinct discipline from other areas of knowledge and learning has led to the self-assumed independence of philosophy from its socio- historical contexts. This tension is also visible within the field of Chinese Philosophy, where scholars generally adopt a methodology that conforms to the standards of Western philosophical practice. In order to make Chinese philosophy relevant within the comparative philosophical discourse, they tend to decontextualize early Chinese thought and, furthermore, appropriate it on Western terms.

As a result, scholars of Early Chinese Philosophy generally limit their study to the so- called “master texts,” which are identified as consistent expositions of the masters’ philosophical system, while little attention is given to the “non-philosophical” aspects such as literary and rhetorical features. Furthermore, due to its emphatic focus, the field of Early Chinese Philosophy rarely concerns itself with the socio-historical context in which early Chinese thought emerged. As a result, “philosophy of the past” is not studied as such, but rather as an aspect of contemporary philosophy that contributes to current ethical and political debates. In doing so, however, we fail to do justice to the ways in which early Chinese thinkers themselves conceptualized their own philosophical discourse.

In order to reintegrate early Chinese philosophy into its original contexts, and reinterpret it on its own terms, it is necessary that we no longer consider it an isolated and sharply distinct field, but rather place it within the larger field of Early China Studies. Within the framework of “area studies,” this field is by definition interdisciplinary and combines the study of history, literature, art, archaeology, paleography, philology, religion, and so on. By being (re)introduced into this multidisciplinary environment, Early Chinese Philosophy can benefit from the intellectual exchange and mutual inspiration among different academic disciplines, and can in turn contribute to a much richer and deeper rethinking of the complex world of early Chinese thought, culture, and politics.

2. Purpose of the Workshop

The aim of our proposed Workshop is to bring together scholars from different disciplines and backgrounds for a dialogue on Early Chinese Philosophy between different areas of knowledge. Our guiding interest will be in the relationship between philosophy and the historical and socio- political environment that gave rise to its ideas. We need to understand better whether or not we should interpret these philosophical ideas in relation to their contexts, and how a truly interdisciplinary approach might be conducive to our understanding of early Chinese thought.

Through collaborative and interdisciplinary discussion, we hope to create a space among different disciplines in which to rethink the field of Early Chinese Philosophy in its essence of “philosophy of the past”—not only qua philosophy, but also, and perhaps more importantly, qua past. We want to challenge the current academic discipline of Early Chinese Philosophy through a more contextual and intertextual approach that is inspired by the interdisciplinary nature of Early China Studies. This approach does not exclude comparative philosophy and cross-cultural analysis but aims to explore Early Chinese Philosophy on its own historical and cultural terms, and in its own categories, vocabulary, and discourse. We hold that this philosophy must first be reconceptualized as embedded before it can be compared more aptly and effectively.

5 replies on “Workshop on Early Chinese Philosophy in Context”

  1. This looks very interesting – I hope to attend, to learn about relevant early contexts, though I don’t expect to have anything to contribute about that.

    From the Background section of the workshop description:

    As a result, “philosophy of the past” is not studied as such, but rather as an aspect of contemporary philosophy that contributes to current ethical and political debates.

    This strikes me as false. And yet I wrote in another thread recently,

    The participant understanding in Philosophy departments is that philosophy is inquiry toward answering a certain kind of question; inquiry toward developing understanding or knowledge on certain kinds of topic [viz. the most broad and confusing of seemingly important topics]. The main business of the department is to do that activity. (A piece of auxiliary business is to study past instances of that investigative activity; but the main manner of doing that is as though the past instance is an interlocutor, a partner in the main investigative activity: rather as a physicist might read papers in physics journals. One entertains the ideas …)

    My words in the parenthetical part could be very misleading.

    For my part I did not mean to suggest that “philosophy of the past” (such as Confucius or Kant) is not studied as such, for obviously it is – in virtually all Anglophone philosophy departments I think. But it is studied mainly with the aims specially appropriate to philosophy programs, as distinct from (say) history programs. It is studied as philosophy (of the past). But it is not studied “as such” if this means without specific purpose beyond description, the sort of purpose that would not care whether one were studying good or bad philosophy of the past, as a biologist does not care whether she is studying the strongest swiftest lizards. Of course, as the workshop description points out, there are plenty of good reasons to study early Chinese philosophy other than the philosophical reasons, to be weighed against competing claims for academic attention.

    I’m not sure what it means to say that past philosophy is mainly studied “as an aspect of contemporary philosophy.” Offhand, that sounds to me like a rare and disreputable activity.

    I did mean to say that old philosophy is studied mainly in the hope that it can contribute to current philosophical understanding. Not just, not even mostly, on “ethical and political” matters. And not just in the hope that the old philosophy can contribute to “current debates” in the narrow sense, for almost nobody thinks we have already asked all the right questions. I think it is pretty uncontroversial in Anglophone philosophy departments that one of the main reasons to study even such familiar figures as Kant or Aristotle is that if we are smart about interpretation, they can show us ways of thinking that we had not considered, issues not addressed in current debates.

    Hannibal Lecter was assisting Clarice Starling’s narrow investigative purpose when he advised her, “Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing ask: what is it in itself? What is its nature?”

    My sense is that the mainstream view in philosophy departments is that if we’re studying old philosophy in the hope of learning from it philosophically, we must try to understand it as it was meant, as it was originally understood. Misreadings tend not to be wise stuff; and if we just pretend that the old stuff is talking our whole language, it won’t be able to upend our minds. It plainly follows that specialists in Chinese philosophy should try to learn whatever contextual matters are relevant to understanding the material – or at least, to understanding it qua philosophy (as would be required by say the project of trying to understand it “as philosophy of the past”). But it’s hard to learn those things, not just because they are strange but also because the study of such things is in its infancy and it is hard to know what to believe. Any help should be very greatly appreciated.

    There’s another way that my statement could mislead about my view – this time by misrepresenting it. When I taught the pre-Socratics, such as Thales and his claim that everything is made of water, or Zeno and his various arguments against the possibility of motion, my main aim was not to consider that they might be right about something. Rather, the pre-Socratics are studied and taught partly because they help us contextualize Plato and Aristotle, and partly because they are stepping stones for beginning students. If I can get a student to put herself in Thales’ sandals, knowing only the sorts of things Thales knew, and lead her through what his thought processes might have been, and even have the class discuss matters within that framework, I can show them something about what it is like to do philosophy, and encourage them to try. Similarly for the Analects. Of course there are severe limits to what one knows about the context in each case, and further limits to what is worth conveying to beginning students for that purpose. Indeed, overdetailing the differences would defeat the encouraging purpose.

    • Bill,

      The workshop is being organized by two graduate students at Princeton, namely Mercedes Valmisa and Sara Vantournhout. I’m sure they’re the ones who wrote the blurb about the conference, so you’d have to address your questions to them–but I don’t think they’re aware of this blog.


    • P.S. The title of my paper will be “Non-Deductive Argumentation in Classical Chinese Philosophy.”

  2. Thanks Paul!! My quibbles here are all about one peripheral line in the workshop statement and are mostly about me; I might better have put them in the other thread. I don’t really have questions. Alas that not everyone in the field is aware of this blog — let’s hush that up. Your title is an attraction; I’m looking forward to your paper.

  3. Bill, Paul, I’m well aware of this blog, that’s why I had the announcement of the workshop post here!

    I’m glad to see that our initial statement is already raising some questions and reflections, and I look forward to the discussion on Feb 22.

    I will shortly send updated info on the schedule of the workshop to the registered participants.


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