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Chinese Philosophy in the English-Speaking World: Interview with Bryan Van Norden

Bryan W. Van Norden is a professor in the Philosophy Department and teaches in the Department of Chinese and Japanese at Vassar College. He is a former Chair of each of these departments, and was also a guest professor in the School of Philosophy of Wuhan University in 2014.

How did you become interested in Chinese philosophy?

I’m part of the generation that became interested in China after the death of Mao Zedong, which marked the end of the extreme leftism and isolationism of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). After Mao, the Chinese government became much more moderate and opened the country up to the West. To be honest, the Kung-fu craze started by the international success of Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon was also a factor in my burgeoning interest in China.

My interest in philosophy was originally independent. I was on the high school debate team, and the topic one year was whether the government should re-institute the draft. The more I thought about the relationship between the individual and the state, the more questions I had. After an intense argument with a social studies teacher, in which I think I advocated anarchism, he handed me a copy of Rousseau’s The Social Contract and made me go into another room to read it. I’ve been hooked on philosophy ever since.

In college, I majored in philosophy, but also studied Chinese in an era when many people would literally not believe you if you told them you were learning Chinese. I had distinguished and inspiring teachers in both philosophy and Sinology. However, when I asked about the possibility of combining my interests and studying Chinese philosophy, I was told by one Sinologist that philosophy is a pointless discipline, and I was informed by more than one philosophy professor that there is no such thing as “Chinese philosophy.” I have been teased that I suffer from “oppositional defiance,” and perhaps that explains why I decided to get a doctorate specializing in Chinese philosophy, even though I knew next to nothing about it when I began graduate school.

What are your views on the popularization of Chinese ideas through tai chi, meditation, mindfulness, and spiritual self-help books?

It is hard to generalize because appropriations of Eastern thought differ greatly in their goals and levels of sophistication. For example, it is possible to treat tai chi and meditation as techniques for reducing stress and improving one’s health. This is certainly not the primary role they play in the systems of thought from which they originate, but these appropriations of practices still have value. When it comes to appropriating doctrines, reading a shallow work, or misunderstanding a profound work, can nonetheless be useful if it is the beginning of philosophical inquiry. For example, I read Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy in high school. This work is very tendentious as history, but it didn’t hurt in getting me thinking about a wide range of philosophical issues. However, shallow versions of philosophy, whether Western or Eastern, can become serious impediments to understanding if someone fixates upon them as giving all the answers. People who think The Tao of Pooh is all they really need to read about Daoism fall into this trap, but then so do members of the Ayn Rand cult, like Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, or advocates of a narrow scientism like Neil deGrasse Tyson, who complained that philosophers “ask too many questions”.

It seems that Chinese or Asian philosophy is often used as self-help, such as Sarah Napthali’s Buddhism for Mothers. Yet there has been some debate about whether philosophy is therapy or enquiry. Do you think Chinese philosophy is therapy or enquiry?

Again, I don’t think there is a fundamental difference between Eastern and Western philosophy here. We often forget that many major Western philosophers have been plausibly interpreted as speaking therapeutically, at least some of the time, including Plato, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein. Even Descartes, the undisputed founder of modernist rationalism, explicitly wrote the Meditations as therapy. He doesn’t give you skeptical arguments to convince you of skeptical conclusions. He gives you skeptical arguments to make you feel the need for an indubitable foundation for knowledge. Now, if you don’t think any of the preceding four figures counts as a philosopher—well, I can’t help you!

Certainly, there are therapeutic figures and texts in Chinese philosophy as well. The writings of Zhuangzi and Wittgenstein’s Investigations were composed in different intellectual contexts with distinct goals. However, they are surprisingly similar in at least three respects: Both are written in a style that features concise arguments, evocative questions, and even short stories – remember Wittgenstein’s slab-builders. Both seem more interested in talking you out of something than in talking you into something. Finally, both have induced later commentators to construct systematic philosophical systems to explain them, such as Kripke’s reading of the Investigations.

In your paper “Problems and Prospects for the Study of Chinese Philosophy in the English-Speaking World”, you argue that the Western world of philosophy neglects Chinese perspectives. Can you briefly outline why this is the case and why it is an issue?

There is no consensus about what the top U.S. doctorate-granting philosophy departments overall are, but, by a reasonable estimate, only seven of them have a single member of their regular faculty who teaches Chinese philosophy: Duke UniversitySUNY Buffalo, University of California at BerkeleyUniversity of California at Riverside, University of Connecticut, University of Oklahoma, and University of Utah. An additional two top institutions allow members of another department to cross-list their courses in philosophy: Georgetown University and Indiana University at Bloomington. In contrast, any top philosophy department would consider it a scandal if they didn’t have at least one faculty member, and preferably more than one, who could lecture competently on Parmenides’s poem.

The absence of Chinese thinkers from the curricula of philosophy departments in the U.S. is problematic for at least three reasons. First, China is an increasingly important world power, and traditional philosophy has continuing relevance. President Xi Jinping has repeatedly praised Confucianism. How will America’s future diplomats, representatives, senators, and presidents know what this means for China if there is no one to teach them what Confucianism is about? If someone replies that they can learn about Confucianism from religious studies or area studies departments, I would ask them what they would say if their dean told them they don’t need to hire a Kant specialist, because the German department can teach him, and they don’t need to hire a political philosopher, because the political science department has someone who covers that.

Second, as Myisha Cherry and Eric Schwitzgebel point out, “Academic philosophy in the United States has a diversity problem. …[A]mong U.S. citizens and permanent residents receiving philosophy PhDs in this country, 86% are non-Hispanic white.” Part of the cause of this problem is that students of color are confronted with a curriculum that is almost monolithically European. To address this problem, philosophy departments in the U.S. need to increase offerings in not just Chinese philosophy, but also Africana, Indian, and Islamic philosophy. Because of the changing demographics of the U.S., the very survival of philosophy as an academic discipline in this country depends upon its becoming multicultural.

Third, it will simply increase the quality of philosophical thought to include a wider range of intellectual traditions. Just as Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas enriched the Western philosophical tradition by re-introducing Aristotle to the curriculum and encouraging their Christian students to read Jewish and Muslim commentators, so will introducing Chinese philosophy to the curriculum only add depth and breadth. Late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia expressed a common misconception about Chinese philosophy when he dismissed it as the “mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie,” and nothing but “poetry or inspirational pop-philosophy” that lacks “logic and precision.” In reality, Chinese philosophy is rich in persuasive argumentation and careful analysis.

It has been argued that Eastern ideas such as Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism are interesting, but are mystical and not philosophy because “they do not attempt to argue for a position by using logic and evidence” (Massimo Pigliucci). What do you think of this criticism? Why should we take Eastern philosophy seriously?

I would ask people like Pigliucci why he thinks that the Mohist state-of-nature argument to justify government authority is not philosophy? What does he make of Mengzi’s reductio ad absurdum against the claim that human nature is reducible to desires for food and sex? Why does he dismiss Zhuangzi’s version of the problem of the criterion? What is his opinion of Han Feizi’s argument that political institutions must be designed so that they do not depend upon the virtue of political agents? What does he think of Zongmi’s argument that reality must fundamentally be mental, because it is inexplicable how consciousness could arise from matter that was non-conscious? Why does he regard the Platonic dialogues as philosophical, yet dismiss Fazang’s dialogue in which he argues for and responds to objections against the claim that individuals are defined by their relationships to others? What is his opinion of Wang Yangming’s arguments for the claim that it is impossible to know what is good yet fail to do what is good? What does he make of Mou Zongsan’s critique of Kant, or Liu Shaoqi’s argument that Marxism is incoherent unless supplemented with a theory of individual ethical transformation? Of course, the answer to each question is that those who suggest that Chinese philosophies are irrational have never heard of any of these arguments because they do not bother to read about Chinese philosophy and dismiss it in ignorance. Such comments remind me of the sort of undergraduates who don’t complete the assigned readings, but think they have some “really cool ideas” about the topic anyway, and that the whole class would benefit greatly from hearing them. My grade would be, “D-. See me!”

Which Chinese philosophical works do you think are most important? Why?

“Importance” is a difficult concept to pin down. In many ways, Cicero has been one of the most important philosophers in the West (in the sense of being widely read and admired through long stretches of history), but he’s not the first person I would recommend to someone interested in learning about Western philosophy. In addition, it is useful to read Hesiod to appreciate the pre-Socratic philosophers, or the New Testament to understand Augustine or Aquinas, but I wouldn’t hold up the former as philosophical works, per se.

Similarly, some works have been very influential in the history of Chinese philosophy but are probably not the best place to start for a Western philosopher with no background in the subject. If a Western philosopher with any degree of open-mindedness wants to read Chinese philosophical works, I would start with the writings of Mozi, Mengzi, Zhuangzi, Xunzi, Han Feizi, Fazang – particularly “The Rafter Dialogue” – and Wang Yangming. I’ve co-edited anthologies that include all these figures, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy with Philip J. Ivanhoe and Readings in Later Chinese Philosophy with Justin Tiwald, and I’ve written a textbook, Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy, to help situate the earliest Chinese philosophers historically.

What was your motivation behind your TED-Ed animation “Who was Confucius?” and what do you hope it will achieve?

Forgive me for getting a running start at this question! We all know that the professionalization of philosophy in the West has been a relatively recent phenomenon, with both good and bad consequences. On the good side, people like you or me can now be philosophers, even though we are not independently wealthy, because we can get paid by a college or university for doing it. However, as others have pointed out, the professionalization of the field has led philosophers to increasingly write just for other philosophers, and has sometimes made us tone-deaf to real world problems and needs.

Consider two non-professional philosophers: St. Augustine and Wang Yangming. The former was the Bishop of a congregation during a period in which civilization seemed to be on the verge of collapse, while the latter was an active government official and general. You might disagree with everything each of them said, but they are always philosophizing in a way that is obviously relevant to the lived experience of real people, and they are trying to write in a manner that is lively and accessible  – even when Augustine is discussing what God was doing before He created time, or Wang is explaining the monistic metaphysics that he thinks justifies benevolence.

This is my long-winded way of saying that we philosophers should strive to be more accessible and relevant to our larger community. Now, I really enjoyed working with the folks at TED-Ed, and I came to understand that video was aimed primarily at secondary students and some college freshmen or community college students, so I wrote for that level. However, I think we can also do philosophy in a way that is highly rigorous while maintaining accessibility and relevance. For me, three Western paradigms of how to do philosophy in this way are Peter Singer’sFamine, Affluence, and Morality,” G.E.M. Anscombe’sMr. Truman’s Degree,” and James Stockdale’sThe World of Epictetus.”

Interestingly, we did a survey of graduates of Vassar who majored in philosophy. The students had overwhelmingly positive comments about all the professors and topics we teach. However, one stated that three professors in particular had taught him that philosophy is not only about theoretical truth, but also about being an aware and active participant in the world. He mentioned my two distinguished colleagues who teach Western applied ethics and socio-political philosophy, Uma Narayan and Jamie Kelly, and also the professor who taught him Chinese philosophy. As this suggests, both Western and Chinese philosophy can effectively help students to be engaged with and address real-world issues.

What can or should other Western philosophers do to promote the acceptance of Chinese philosophy?

Be open-minded, learn, and then act! If you are looking for places to begin, I maintain a bibliography of sources on Chinese philosophy and a list of some of the top programs in Chinese philosophy in the English-speaking world. It is important to note that each of these just represents my own opinion on these topics. As Zhu Xi (1130–1200) said of his own work, it is important to read works with different views from my own, think about each, and form your own opinion. I am also happy to consult with anyone about Chinese philosophy.

In addition, to understand better how this issue ties into broader problems of diversity in the profession, I encourage everyone to read Eugene Park’s account of how, as a doctoral student, he became disillusioned with academic philosophy and eventually dropped out. He explains:

the pressure to accept and conform to a narrow conception of philosophy was pervasive. When I tried to introduce non-Western and other non-canonical philosophy into my dissertation, a professor in my department suggested that I transfer to the Religious Studies Department or some other department where ‘ethnic studies’ would be more welcome.

As Zhu Xi notes – can you tell he’s one of my favorite philosophers? – while ethical knowledge comes first in time, appropriate action is what is most important. The next time you are authorized to make a search, consider whether it is really best for the long-term health of your department, for the education of your students, and even for the survival of philosophy as an academic discipline, to hire yet another person with an AOS in Western philosophy. If nothing else, make it a requirement for new hires that they at least have a genuine AOC in some area of non-Western philosophy. If a billet will not become available soon, reach out to student groups to “encourage” deans to authorize new positions in non-Western philosophy.

There is admittedly a pipeline problem in fields like Chinese philosophy that has become a vicious circle: few departments teach Chinese philosophy, so there are few candidates to hire with an AOS or AOC in this area, so departments can use this as an excuse for not hiring anyone to teach Chinese philosophy. However, the fact is that there are enough scholars out there right now that we could double the number of top doctoral programs that teach Chinese philosophy overnight, if there were the will to do it.

We have been discussing Chinese philosophy because that is your area of specialization, but do you think similar problems exist regarding the study of other kinds of philosophy that is outside the Anglo-European mainstream?

Definitely. I think anyone who has had any exposure at all to Indian or Islamic philosophy will recognize that it counts as “real philosophy” by even the most narrow standards. As you note, I am not an expert on these topics, but I understand that good books to read in order to learn more about Indian philosophy include:

Islamic philosophers were thoughtfully engaging Plato and Aristotle during a period when my European ancestors had forgotten how to even read, and the contemporary relevance of Islamic philosophy is at least as great as that of traditional Chinese philosophy. As a non-specialist in this area, I have heard good things about the work of Peter Adamson who has contributed to the APA Blog, including his Philosophy in the Islamic World: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2015), and the volume he co-edited with Richard Taylor, The Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy (2005). One useful anthology of primary sources is Jon McGinnis and David Reisman, eds., Classical Arabic Philosophy: An Anthology of Sources (Hackett Publishing, 2007).

Sadly, I know even less about other traditions, but I do know that there is provocative research being done on Africana philosophy and Aztec philosophies.

Any final thoughts?

Let me close with one of my favorite quotations from Zhu Xi, which sums up the spirit of Chinese philosophy:

There is a certain sort of talk among the current generation that encourages laziness. People say things like, “I would not dare to carelessly criticize my elders!” or “I would not dare to assert my own uninformed opinions!” These are simply expressions of laziness! Certainly one shouldn’t unthinkingly criticize one’s elders, but what harm is there in discussing what is right or wrong with their actions? And certainly one shouldn’t insist on one’s own opinions, but when we read books, we will have doubts and have insights. Naturally we will have opinions. Those who don’t have opinions simply have not read carefully enough to have any doubts!

Quoted from Tiwald and Van Norden, eds., Readings in Later Chinese Philosophy.

Image: Plato-Confucius-Aristotle | Wikimedia commons

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2 thoughts on “Chinese Philosophy in the English-Speaking World: Interview with Bryan Van Norden

  1. This is a wonderfully lucid and highly insightful meditation on Chinese Philosophy in the English-speaking world. I hope every Philosophy Department in the U.S. will call a special faculty meeting or set aside one hour of their next meeting to discuss this piece in conjunction with the essay Van Norden and Garfield wrote for The Stone column of the New York Times: http://nyti.ms/1URR6lW .

  2. For a systematic account of this issue, see my: “The Tacit Rejection of Multiculturalism in American Philosophy Ph.D. Programs: The Case of Chinese Philosophy” (update: Roger Ames is just now retiring, Franklin Perkins has been hired to replace him, and Alexus McLeod has been hired at the University of Connecticut). For an example of recent essays in Chinese philosophy, see my edited volume: The Philosophical Challenge from China (MIT Press 2015). Apologies for the self-promotion, but these are directly relevant to the discussion.

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