Approaches to Chinese and Comparative Philosophy–What Are We Doing?
I’ve been thinking recently about a difficulty in our field in general. Especially after reading some comments on an earlier post on publishing in Chinese philosophy, it seems a good time to discuss this issue. There are, all of us would admit, a number of different and sometimes opposing methodologies concerning how we read, interpret, and use ancient Chinese philosophical material in our work. We have different agendas, and have different methods of reading and using texts and ancient material based on these agendas. However, we often fail to lay our cards on the table concerning these agendas when we write, and also fail to understand authors’ approaches when we read them, and this makes for confusion and tension as the field of Chinese and comparative philosophy attempts to grow to a more prominent position within philosophy in general. I am thinking here of Chinese philosophy as done by philosophers primarily, because I recognize there are different, and sometimes incompatible, agendas for others in different fields as well, which complicates the issue even further. I think it would be helpful, going forward, to devote more attention to these issues, which would help us come to a better understanding of just what we’re trying to do when we concentrate on Chinese and comparative philosophy.
One (of many) of the divides we have within the field is one that also exists in the mainstream in general—that between historians of philosophy and non-historian philosophers (the latter not people unconcerned with history but rather primarily interested in solving philosophical problems). The agendas of these two philosophers will be very different—one is concerned with discovering what Confucius held concerning virtue, for example, while the other may be more concerned with discovering the correct (or, an adequate) theory of virtue. It seems to me that this divide is recognized and respected in “mainstream” philosophy in a way it is not (as much, at least) within Chinese philosophy.
Speaking for myself, I am mainly a historian of philosophy, in the sense that when I am thinking and writing about Confucius, Xunzi, Wang Chong, or some other historical figure, I am concerned primarily with what their views were, not whether these views are correct, or even plausible for that matter. This kind of project seems to me wholly unproblematic, and I believe many philosophers working on historical figures in the western tradition (the ancient Greeks, medievals, early moderns, etc.) would agree with this assessment. However, one sometimes encounters within our own field resistance to this way of engaging ancient Chinese philosophers. The expectation in some quarters of the field seems to me to be that we ought to use the ancient Chinese material to illuminate debates in contemporary ethics in the west, or that we should somehow show how the ancient Chinese philosophers fit into the categories of contemporary debates—worrying about whether Confucius or Mencius was a “virtue ethicist”, etc.
The tension one encounters, then, is that if one is offering an interpretation of, say, Xunzi on 性 xing, which attributes to him an implausible view, even though one has argued adequately why it is justified to think that Xunzi actually did hold such an implausible view, some will reject the importance of this project. They may hold that it does not “advance the debate”, as though the only relevant debate is one surrounding which ethical views on human nature in general are most plausible, and not the debate surrounding what Xunzi actually held about xing.
I agree with Chris Fraser, in his comments on the post I mentioned above, that the clash of these different agendas is probably due to the relative immaturity of the field of Chinese and comparative philosophy. It seems to me that one way of attempting to fix this problem is to be up front about our agendas, and take time to think about and perhaps document the different philosophical pursuits within the field. This way, we can apply standards relative to the project one is pursuing, and thus be able to more adequately appraise the quality of any given piece of work in Chinese or comparative philosophy. Of course, there will not be clear and obvious boundaries between different kinds of project, and there will often be overlap. We can, however, isolate generally different concerns and projects. We can, for example, easily see the distinction between purely historical work and more creative-constructive work involving ancient Chinese thinkers, just as we can tell the difference between a historical work on Plato’s theory of Forms and a work which attempts to construct a unique metaphysical theory by using elements of Plato’s theory, or a view “inspired by” Plato’s theory. Authors have to be more explicit about what their projects are from the outset of their works (I’ve read work in Chinese philosophy, for example, which leaves me confused about the author’s goals and agenda until relatively late in the work or even on a second reading), and reviewers for journals and publishers have to take into account the relevant standards for success of the project in question when they are appraising a work.
Perhaps then the next step, once we have come to some general agreement about what the projects and agendas are, would be a discussion of which projects and agendas are good ones, and which are not (another difficult and controversial issue). I am of the mind that allowing for a variety of different methods of doing Chinese and comparative philosophy is a good thing, but that not all approaches are useful or good for the field in general. Any approach to Chinese and comparative philosophy could, for example, have its own rigorous internal standards but still be absurd (think of a view that the best way to approach Chinese philosophers is to compare what they say with contemporary soap advertisements, and that we have an adequate interpretation of, say, Mencius, when we find the interpretation of Mencius that comes closest to the views espoused in soap ads!)
Fortunately, we have here assembled at “Warp, Weft, and Way” a number of scholars with different approaches to Chinese and comparative philosophy. What are your thoughts on all this? Let’s get this conversation started!