Bad arguments against the teaching of Chinese philosophy


“I: Have you considered teaching Chinese philosophy in your department?
COLLEGE: Philosophy is by definition the tradition that dates back to Greece… ”

So begins Bryan Van Nordenthe compilation of arguments he heard in response to his pressure for a wider teaching of Chinese philosophy in the departments of Western philosophy, as well as his responses to them.

[Liang Shaoji, “Chains: The Unbearable Lightness of Being”]

Professor Van Norden, James Monroe Taylor Chair of Philosophy at Vassar College and Professor of Philosophy at the School of Philosophy at Wuhan University, recounts these arguments during a maintenance with Clifford Sosis at What does it feel like to be a philosopher?

Sosis asked, “The common questions and criticisms that you encounter when you claim that Western philosophy is incomplete and racist? How do you respond to these questions and criticisms? “

Below is Van Norden’s full response:

I have had versions of the following conversation more times than I can remember:

I: Have you considered teaching Chinese philosophy in your department?

COLLEGE: Philosophy is by definition the tradition that dates back to Greece.

I: It’s not even a good one At first glance argument. What makes philosophy something is its subjects and its methodology, not an accident of historical association. For example, mathematics exists independently of the Anglo-European tradition, so why not philosophy?

COLLEGE: Would you like to fly in an airplane built with non-Western math? [Note: yes, I have actually heard this “argument.”]

I: I would ONLY fly in an airplane built with non-Western mathematics. Have you heard of Arabic numerals? They really hang on.

COLLEGE: We don’t teach religious studies or the history of ideas, only authentic philosophy.

I: Which Chinese thinkers have you read that you think are not really philosophers? Mozi? Zhuangzi? Mengzi? Xunzi? Han Feizi?

COLLEAGUE: I haven’t read any.

I: If you haven’t read any, how do you know-

COLLEGE: – but they are all just aphorists.

ME: Heraclitus, Pascal, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein are aphorists, and they are philosophers. Besides, most Chinese thinkers do not write in aphorisms. It’s a stereotype.

COLLEGE: But they don’t discuss the same philosophical topics in China that we do in the West.

ME: Yes, they discuss many of the same issues, including topics of normative ethics, meta-ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics.

COLLEGE: If they are discussing the same issues, we don’t need to read them because they duplicate what we already have in the West. If they are discussing different issues, they are talking about a different topic, so we don’t need to read them.

I: That too is not even a good argument at first glance. If that was a good point, it would be a reason no one read YOUR works either. Either what you’re writing duplicates what I’m already thinking, in case why should I read it, or you’re saying something different than what I’m saying, in which case you’re talking about a different topic, so why should i care?

COLLEGE: Maybe they’re discussing the same topics, but they’re not using a philosophical methodology. They do not provide arguments.

I: Yes, they do. I’d be happy to give you a dozen examples off the top of my head.

COLLEGE: Why can’t you just teach Chinese philosophy in studies or ethnic studies or something like that?

I: Why can’t you teach Kant in the German department or Rawls in American studies? Why do we even need a philosophy department instead of different area studies? The answer is that Chinese philosophers should be taught in philosophy departments because they are philosophers, and philosophers use distinct approaches to teaching texts that people in language and literature or area studies departments don’t. generally do not have.

COLLEAGUE: We don’t have anyone who can read Chinese.

I: In the first cycle, most of the people who teach Descartes nowadays do not read French or Latin, and most of the people who teach Aristotle and Plato do not read classical Greek.

COLLEGE: Yes, but these are good translations available of Descartes, Aristotle and Plato.

ME: There are good translations of a lot of Chinese philosophy. I edited myself two translation anthologies.

COLLEGE: We can barely cover all the figures and texts of Anglo-European philosophy now. What would you like us to leave out?

I: You are far from covering the whole of Anglo-European philosophy now, you never have been and you never will be. It is always a matter of deciding priorities, and I have seen many departments having several specialists in the same field of Western philosophy, but none in any branch of non-Western philosophy.

COLLEGE: They teach Chinese philosophy in China, and we teach Western philosophy here. What the hell is wrong with that?

ME: Every university in China teaches Anglo-European philosophy, and Chinese philosophy, and Marxist philosophy.

COLLEGE: Prove it. [Note: Yes, I really got this response once, and gave the response below.]

I: Here is an email from a professor in China confirming what I already knew from having taught in China myself: they teach both Chinese and Western philosophy in China.

COWORKER: China is really racist, you know.

I: Since you are a big fan of the Western intellectual tradition, I am sure you are aware that you have just committed the illusion you quoque. Yes, there is racism and ethnocentrism in all cultures around the world. This is no reason not to fight against it.

COLLEAGUE: So you think everything is bad in the West?

I: I never said anything like that. In fact, in terms of epistemology, I am a neo-Kantian.

COLLEGE: But do you think Chinese philosophy is better than Western philosophy?

I: I didn’t say that either. I like them both.

COLLEGE: Western science and technology shows the superiority of the West.

ME: China was significantly ahead of the West technologically until the beginning of the scientific revolution. The compass, gunpowder, and printing with movable type were all invented in China. And any competent historian will tell you that the scientific revolution was the result of a series of historical accidents and coincidences that fortuitously worked well for the West. For example, Kepler was led to his laws of planetary motion because he was looking for a mystical correspondence between the five Platonic solids and the orbits of Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

COLLEAGUE: Listen, this is the tradition in which we work. Take it or leave it. [Note: Yes, someone I know was told this in response to the suggestion that they add non-Western philosophy to the curriculum.]

I: Have you ever heard the expression “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human”?

The entire interview, informative and entertaining throughout, is here.



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