Is “Chinese Philosophy” Philosophy?

The argument over the boundaries of a discipline is certainly not exclusive to philosophy, but focusing on a specific debate can help us spot a number of features that might be more widely applicable.

This particular saga began when two professors of philosophy, Jay Garfield and Bryan Van Norden, wrote an editorial in the New York Times arguing that philosophy as it is taught today in most universities is incredibly narrow with respect to the material it studies:

The vast majority of philosophy departments in the United States offer courses only on philosophy derived from Europe and the English-speaking world. For example, of the 118 doctoral programs in philosophy in the United States and Canada, only 10 percent have a specialist in Chinese philosophy as part of their regular faculty. Most philosophy departments also offer no courses on Africana, Indian, Islamic, Jewish, Latin American,Native American or other non-European traditions. Indeed, of the top 50 philosophy doctoral programs in the English-speaking world, only 15 percent have any regular faculty members who teach any non-Western philosophy.

In response, a political science professor, Nicholas Tampio, wrote an essay for Aeon arguing that even if other intellectual traditions have valuable things to say, we shouldn’t automatically assimilate them into philosophy- this would be unfair to both philosophy and those other traditions:

It might seem broadminded to call for philosophy professors to teach ancient Asian scholars such as Confucius and Candrakīrti in addition to dead white men such as David Hume and Immanuel Kant. However, this approach undermines what is distinct about philosophy as an intellectual tradition, and pays other traditions the dubious compliment of saying that they are just like ours.

This battle continued in a twitter exchange, where Van Norden destroyed Nicholas Tampio’s argument by pointing out a multitude of examples from the Chinese tradition that seemed to undercut Tampio’s argument. (Later however, I will show that Tampio’s argument opens itself up to brutal criticism not because it’s a weak argument, but because it was ambitious)

In this post, I’ll try summarizing the original debate, but also point out a few features which might give us some insight into the mechanics of debates such as these.

I. Examining the Goalpost

We then need to think about what sort of question we are asking. To begin answering whether “X is philosophy” we need to have some familiarity with what philosophy is. If we wish to refrain from empty generalizations, one way to approach this question is to look at what sorts of discussions and ideas in society are subsumed under (academic) philosophy, and locate a (sometimes contested) canon, socially identifiable experts, as well as certain questions that are deemed important at least at a given time.

But it doesn’t quite stop there.

To see this, consider the implicit assumption that Plato’s Socrates makes in the dialogues during his relentless questioning- that there is an essence to justice, beauty, goodness, etc., which can be spelt out in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. And this doesn’t stop with Plato- even today most philosophy books perform conceptual analysis without saying anything about how intuitions are products of sociohistoric contexts. But as Nietzsche later points out “only that which has no history is definable”. It’s one thing to provide a strict criterion for atemporal objects like triangles, it is a whole other ball game when it comes to ideas like justice (or here, philosophy) which have a history, which came to be used in certain ways over time. This isn’t to say that attempts at definition shouldn’t be made, or that they have no place in analysis, but rather that we need to take seriously that fact that most concepts which are given to us have a complex history associated with it, a history where contingent and accidental events inevitably play major roles.

And if the history of a concept makes things hard, then its future makes it even harder. Not enough has been said about or made of the fact that a large chunk of our speech isn’t factual as much as aspirational. When we talk about what philosophy is, we’re not merely summarizing patterns which exist in the present, but also sneaking in norms about how we think it ought to be. These can be epistemic norms (for example: coherence) or pragmatic norms (eg: political acceptability). The reason we don’t delineate descriptions from prescriptions explicitly goes back to the tendency we have to assume that philosophy has an essence- this way, prescriptions can be packaged as just a better description instead of an attempt at a substantive change.

With all this being said, we can now appreciate that the question about what philosophy is is simultaneously engaging in a number of fronts including:

  • What considerations are currently used to delineate whether something is or isn’t philosophy?
  • What standards should be used to delineate whether something is or isn’t philosophy?

which is typically taken to be informed by other questions like:

  • What is the best conception of philosophy in the present with respect to academic work?
  • What is the best conception of philosophy in the present with respect to the layman?
  • What is the best conception of philosophy as a tradition starting with the ancient Greeks?
  • What is the best conception of philosophy as a search for answers of some trans-cultural questions?
  • What is the best conception of philosophy with regard to social justice (for example: racial or cultural justice)?
  • What is the best conception of philosophy which will be politically expedient (with respect to funding, for example)?

Part II: Adjudicating the current debate

The editorial states the core argument as follows:

Given the importance of non-European traditions in both the history of world philosophy and in the contemporary world, and given the increasing numbers of students in our colleges and universities from non-European backgrounds, this is astonishing. No other humanities discipline demonstrates this systematic neglect of most of the civilizations in its domain. The present situation is hard to justify morally, politically, epistemically or as good educational and research training practice.

…Others might argue against renaming on the grounds that it is unfair to single out philosophy: We do not have departments of Euro-American Mathematics or Physics. This is nothing but shabby sophistry. Non-European philosophical traditions offer distinctive solutions to problems discussed within European and American philosophy, raise or frame problems not addressed in the American and European tradition, or emphasize and discuss more deeply philosophical problems that are marginalized in Anglo-European philosophy. There are no comparable differences in how mathematics or physics are practiced in other contemporary cultures.

There seems to be two distinct arguments here:

  1. Non-European traditions might have something to contribute to the European tradition as it currently exists (by providing solutions, raising problems, etc).
  2. Non-European traditions are useful to study for their own sake, because of their historic importance and their specific features.

I think the authors are very successful at arguing for #1. As can be seen in the twitter exchange, Van Norden produces numerous examples of how other traditions seem to be engaging in questions traditionally discusses in philosophy. Since justification of state authority, skepticism, weakness of will, ontology, justice, etc., are all parts of the standard philosophy canon, it seems that other traditions might very well have a bearing on many of the questions associated with philosophy. (As for #2, it will depend on our approach to multiculturalism, and since no one talks about it in depth, I ignore it here)

With this made clear, we can see that Tampio’s response to the original editorial is, in fact, incredibly confused. At one point he claims “philosophy is one among many ways to think about questions such as the origin of the Universe, the nature of justice, or the limits of knowledge,” but also goes on to observe that “philosophy departments support the teaching and research of logic, metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics, ethics, and politics.” But if philosophy departments support research on knowledge (epistemology), and philosophy is just one way to think about questions of knowledge, then philosophy departments should expand to involve other traditions which he might not count as philosophy. Hence his argument seems to be self-undermining. Van Norden presses this point to great effect.

However, Tampio is making at least two other arguments:

  1. Philosophy is under attack by philistine law makers like Marco Rubio who will use criticism of the lack of diversity to “prohibit federal funds from subsidising the study of philosophy, say, at community colleges or state universities.”
  2. Philosophy is distinct from other traditions by virtue of its methodology- “[it] is a restless pursuit for truth through contentious dialogue” and “aims to be a dialogue between people of different viewpoints.” It has a “restless character” that “has often made it the enemy of religion and tradition.” Finally, “it is in principle open to everybody, and people all around the world heed Plato’s call to live an examined life.”

Van Norden responds to the first argument by pointing out that “Conservatives respond to multiculturalism by calling for more study of traditional Western philosophy. Liberals respond to multiculturalism with applause and more enthusiasm for philosophy. Either way multicultural philosophy makes the topic seem more exciting and relevant than before.” I think Van Norden presents a more plausible causal chain than Tampio, and so the argument for inclusion gets even stronger.

As for the second argument, it’s true that Plato’s Socrates does seem quite different compared to Confucius (say) as well as most traditions in that his texts seem to be “a restless pursuit for truth through contentious dialogue”. The problem with using this methodology to demarcate philosophy arises when we consider that a lot of later works which are considered paradigmatic instances of philosophy look like they would fail this criterion. After all, Spinoza, Rawls, and Kuhn are hardly writing “contentious dialogues”. Moreover, as Van Norden points out, “Confucius [can be thought of as similar to] philosophers such as Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas [in believing] rational inquiry is consistent with commitment to a particular spiritual tradition.”

Moreover, there has always been conservative thought in (Western) philosophy that stresses the importance of respect for tradition (eg: Burke), and so if we demand that valuing “impiety, disrespect, and challenging doxa” is essential for something to be philosophy, we might have to exclude far too much of what we consider philosophy today. And that’s not to mention that Confucius isn’t the only Chinese Philosopher- the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi, for instance, propounds a radical approach to knowledge and uses metaphor and argument to convince people of his position (loosely). Hence even this attempt at a sharp methodological distinction between Philosophy and Chinese philosophy proves to be inadequate.

If the point of all of this was to merely adjudicate between the arguments given by two opponents, it seems unambiguous that one side has come out on top. However, we don’t need to be boxed in by the tempting binary choice that we have before us- we can reject both, attempt a synthesis, modify an account, etc. In the next part, I’ll take a look at Van Norden’s position a little more carefully.

III. A Geussian Intervention

The previous section might make it sound as though Tampio’s argument is  just incredibly poor, and that Van Norden crushes his opponent through sheer rationality. But a close reading of both pieces reveal a slightly more complicated story- Tampio provides us with explicit conceptions of philosophy, while Van Norden does not. A vital question we need to ask here is whether we need a conception of something to talk about it, especially to probe the boundaries of that thing. In this case, do we need a conception of Philosophy to be able to talk about whether Chinese Philosophy should be a part of it? I think we do but I’m not going to defend this here. If you think we don’t, you can stop reading right here and bask in how good Van Norden’s argument is. If you think we do, read on.

We can see that Tampio provides at least three historical accounts:

  1. An account of the historical origination of what he considers philosophy by pointing to Plato’s Republic.
  2. An explanatory scheme that provides a historic-cultural rationale (“Philosophy is one among many ways to think about questions such as the origin of the Universe, the nature of justice, or the limits of knowledge.”)
  3. A methodological process involving contentious dialogue that is supposed to have originated in Socrates, with an exphasis on the critical aspect of the tradition.

As shown in section II, I don’t think any of these is adequate, but it’s the putting forward of a concrete conception that really opened up the possibility of criticism. If we look the opposition’s editorial or Van Norden’s twitter exchange, we see that there is no analogous conception put forward. The closest we get is a tweet where he says “I think ‘philosophy’ is a family resemblance term, and those who read Chinese philosophers recognize their cousins.”

A family resemblance is a an idea from Wittgenstein, where (loosely) he pointed out that all the entities we consider “games” have no essential property in common. Rather, we have overlapping features between those different entities we call games, and these entities can be said to have a family resemblance. Similarly, it’s not that we are going to find a single property or set of properties which will be necessary and sufficient to pick out what count as philosophy, but rather that there are overlapping common features all over the place. What we should do is to defer to individuals who work in the field to be able to spot whether or not Chinese philosophy is a part of philosophy (and he thinks they will confirm that it is).

To see why I think this is problematic, it might be useful to make a digression and read Raymond Geuss’ excellent (if a bit rambling) essay titled Goals, Origins, Disciplines. Here, he argues that philosophy “arose as a purportedly unitary pursuit from a series of accidental conjunctions occurring over a period of two centuries or so (roughly from Thales to Plato)” and this is the reason it is arranged the way it is, ie., as constituted by epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, etc. Moreover,

There seems, in fact, no reason anymore why those concerned to understand the structure of the natural world should ex officio also have a non-trivial interest in which political institutions or which works of art are best or in formal structures of speech and argumentation. “Philosophy” could dissolve itself into physics for the study of nature; linguistics, rhetoric, and mathematics for the study of speech, argumentation, and formal systems; and politics, belles lettres, and social psychology for the study of “what would be for the best.” I strongly suspect that a radical dissociation of these interests has already occurred, although many people have not noticed it yet, and the discipline of philosophy in its present configuration is held together only by a combination of historical inertia and a sentimentalized attachment to a mostly illusory image of a glorious past.

While everyone in the debate until now seemed satisfied with the current state of philosophy in the sense that they would like it to stay a unity, even if more traditions are added, Geuss raises the radical possibility that philosophy as we know it is best understood as a conjunction of unrelated inquiries, connected by historical accident. If this is the case, arguing that philosophy is a family resemblance is untenable- perhaps Western political philosophers might find similarities in other traditions with respect to political thought, but that’s a far-cry from claiming all of Western philosophy and other traditions forms a natural, synthetic whole.

This shouldn’t necessarily be taken as a call to disband philosophy as we know it though, for as Geuss further points out:

One should not, of course, conclude from the fact that certain disciples have a contingent history relevant to understanding their present form that just any old available elements could randomly be put together as a “discipline,” nor that all conjunctions are equally good…there are things that “go together” better than other things, but it is not at all clear that the idea of “going together” makes sense independent of some at least minimal reference to historically specific human projects, valuations, and purposes

Taking the context in which we are having this discussion seriously, Peter Adamson points out in the sequel to the twitter exchange,

I would say ‘philosophy’ is not a natural kind, but a culturally/historically determined concept. Hence the question of what to count as ‘philosophy’ is (in part or wholly) pragmatic and political. So I would count non-Western ‘philosophy’ for at least three reasons:
1 it encourages openness
2 where else in academia will we teach Confucius, etc
3 the thematic relevance [between] western and non-western texts

While this is a better answer than others, we still have a problem. The advantage of having a full conception (like Tampio’s), even if it usually involves simplification and generalization, is that we get a clear rationale for why certain things are included in the tradition, but also a clear rationale for why certain things are excluded. On the other hand, to follow Geuss’ and Adamson’s approach of deferring to the historical nature of a concept, even if more defensible, is to end up with a conception that can’t do either of the functions a traditional conception can do, at least not as well.

When we dig in deeply enough into the argument, we find there is no fixed spot, nothing essential we can cling to to make sense of the world. All we have are various contexts and analysis we can perform there and recommendations we can give that we believe will be for the best. This is both exhausting and unsatisfying in a deep way. But as “lovers of wisdom”, we have an obligation to stare uncomfortable facts in the face and refuse easy ways out of the hard work involved in thought.

We can finally appreciate Roger Scruton’s point that:

The more one ponders over the qualifications that any reasoned answer [to the question ‘What is philosophy?’]  must contain, the more one is driven to the conclusion that this question is itself one of the principal subjects of philosophical thinking.


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