Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

Is Chinese Philosophical Thought “Alternative” For Us?

I’ve heard a number of times over the years, from various sources both within and outside of the world of Chinese philosophy, that Chinese philosophical thought represents an “alternative” philosophical tradition, very different from “our own”, and that we are conceptually barred from coming to a full understanding of this tradition, that we will always be looking through the misconceptions, in some sense or another, of the western tradition.  Roger Ames and David Hall endorsed something like this view, on the basis of cultural difference (while admittedly still maintaining that understanding the Chinese tradition at some level is possible).  At the extreme there is Alasdair MacIntyre’s problem of incommensurability that threatens to undermine the possibility of understanding alternative traditions at all.   What all of these views seem to assume, however, is that western scholars are in the position of having to translate Chinese philosophical concepts into concepts we more readily understand, concepts from western thinkers.

I’m not sure this why this should be the case.  For most of us westerners who study Chinese philosophy, we have spent a reasonable portion of our lives engaged in the study of Chinese thought and language.  Why think that the Chinese philosophical tradition has not thus become, for us, more familiar than the western tradition with which we are supposed to be so closely aligned?  In my own case, for example—I have spent far more time studying Confucius than Plato, more time thinking about Zhuangzi and Wang Chong than Mill or Kant.  Shouldn’t it be expected that I understand the thought of the Chinese figures better than I do that of the western figures?  Why, then, think that I am prone to interpret the Chinese thinkers through the lens of western philosophical concepts pulled from Plato or Kant, rather than vice versa?  Shouldn’t we rather expect that we scholars of Chinese philosophy might instead misinterpret western philosophers like Plato or Kant by understanding them through the interpretive lens of the Chinese thinkers?

As far as I can tell, there are (at least) a couple of different positions that ground the view that western scholars are denied full understanding of Chinese thought (hopefully readers can locate some others we can discuss in the comments): 1) linguistic determinism—the Chinese philosophers used a very different language to do philosophy, one that is in essential ways different from English and other western languages.  Since we were born and raised speaking English primarily (or other western languages), this limits how we can understand philosophy done in Chinese.  2) cultural determinism—the Chinese people today were born and raised in a culture shaped by the Chinese philosophical tradition, and thus they are in a position to more easily understand key concepts of the tradition, in a way westerners, who were born and raised in a very different culture, are not.

Both of these positions seem problematic to me.  Concerning 1), even if this position were true (which entails that there can be no translation from Chinese into English that will give a reader a fully accurate understanding of a Chinese philosophical concept, argument, etc.), I don’t see how it applies to us, namely western scholars of Chinese thought.  We know the Chinese language and read the Chinese philosophical texts in Chinese.  Don’t we then have the linguistic apparatus to understand the Chinese tradition on its own terms?  If we have effectively learned the Chinese language, then it is not the case that when we read sentences such as 克己復禮,為仁也 , we immediately engage in a process of mental translation, so that we see the words as “turning away from the self and returning to ritual is achieving humanity.”  Indeed, this is the kind of thing that shows that one does not yet have a very good understanding of the language.  When one achieves facility in a language, they don’t need to translate.

Concerning 2), it’s unclear to me that we really do imbibe esoteric philosophical concepts through our cultural milieu.  As anyone who has tried to teach both western and Chinese philosophy to undergraduates can attest, westerners (or at least Americans) with no exposure to philosophy don’t seem to naturally understand Plato, Aristotle, or Mill any better than they do Confucius, Mozi, or Han Feizi (and I’ve found this to be the case with the Chinese students I’ve taught as well.  They don’t have any more special insight into Mencius than they do into Aquinas).  If this is the case, shouldn’t those of us westerners who have spent a decent portion of our lives studying Chinese philosophical thought be expected not only to understand the Chinese thinkers better than we understand their western counterparts, but to also understand them better than most uninitiated Chinese, just as a Chinese Kant scholar ought to be expected to know the Sage of Konigsberg far better than most westerners, including non-Kant scholars?


February 2, 2011 - Posted by | China, Chinese philosophy, Comparative philosophy, Hermeneutics


  1. I think this is a fascinating debate. What would you have to say about “Western” scholars who don’t speak or read Chinese, yet find themselves venturing into the realm of Chinese philosophy? And what about those of us for whom Chinese philosophy does represent an “alternative” tradition – for example, those of us who are firmly grounded in some dimension of the Western philosophical canon, but who turn to Chinese philosophy to provide a constructive, and critical, engagement with our “native” tradition?

    It seems like your response to the problem posed in the critique you mention is to make a claim on authenticity in a way that I, for example, cannot. But does that render the work I do drawing on Confucius inauthentic, invalid, ethnocentric, etc.? The better response to the critique, it seems, is to argue that no one has an authentic purchase on any tradition of thought, as if traditions exist as distinct entities from the scholars who engage them. Rather, the philosopher or political theorist must always reflect on and explicate how they have constructed a particular tradition, what their aim is in so delineating it and in critically engaging it, what limitations their knowledge confronts (historical limitations, linguistic limitations, cultural limitations), and what method or approach they adopt to engage with a particular tradition.

    Those of us who don’t speak or read Chinese are dependent on the translations of those of you who do. So rather than seeking credibility through some claim to authenticity, it seems like those philosophers who span traditions and cultures have an even greater duty to make their interpretive framework and aims more transparent and self-conscious.

    Comment by Sara Rushing | February 2, 2011 | Reply

  2. Hi Sara-
    thanks for your reply!
    it’s certainly not the case that I want to claim that the western student of Chinese philosophy who doesn’t know Chinese is unable to truly understand the texts–this is just the view I reject and am arguing against here. Nor am I trying to make a claim to have authentic knowledge of the Chinese tradition where other western scholars don’t. Rather, what I’m trying to do here is show that the view that we *as westerners* necessarily have some barrier to fully adequate understanding of the texts of the Chinese tradition seems implausible when faced with explaining what this barrier would consist in for a western scholar who 1)knows Chinese, and 2)has spent years becoming familiar with and gaining expert knowledge on the classical Chinese philosophical tradition. The idea is that if such a person can understand the Chinese tradition as well as anyone else, Chinese or western, then the claim about the limitations on our understanding *as westerners* has got to be false. And, as I try to argue above, I see no reason to think such a person *would not* understand the Chinese philosophical tradition as well as someone with a Chinese cultural and linguistic background.

    As for your first question–I think this kind of engagement with Chinese philosophy is great, and wholeheartedly encourage it. I didn’t mean to claim that *only* those of us who know Chinese and specialize in Chinese philosophy are able to authentically engage with the tradition. I take it that this would be a version of the kind of thing I reject in this post. I do think that Chinese thought can be adequately translated into English, and that scholars working mainly within the western tradition can understand the Chinese tradition well without the barriers some claim are there. That is to say, I reject both the linguistic and cultural determinism that I mention in the above post.

    Comment by Alexus McLeod | February 2, 2011 | Reply

    • Hi Alexus,

      Thanks for your response. I have been thinking about this all day. I had to laugh, because I was remembering a professor I had in grad school who was pretty sure that if you hadn’t grown up in Europe and didn’t speak/read German, you could never really *get* Heidegger. So, I guess these kinds of arguments can be made on many levels.

      I agree with you that the claim of cultural determinism is innately problematic. But my response was spurred in part by my personal grappling with whether and how the inability to speak/read Chinese will impose limits on what I can do as a political theorist trying to work in the Confucian tradition. On the one hand, I want to believe that all conceptual engagement requires translation and interpretation (the basic claim of hermeneutics), but on the other hand I realize that I am in a position of *having* to think the Analects in my own vernacular, to a certain extent. So, the questions of authenticity and legitimacy are always in the forefront of my mind when I prepare to have something to say on this text that does feel a little “foreign” to me (but in the same way, I suppose, that the Gorgias does, across centuries of cultural change).

      Comment by Sara Rushing | February 2, 2011 | Reply

  3. Thanks for prompting me to further reflection about these issues, Alexus.

    I take it that the conclusion of the argument is that it is possible that Western scholars of Chinese thought achieve a “full understanding” of Chinese thought. (Set aside the use of the quoted term since I take it no one of any ethnicity “fully understands” Chinese thought…) I’m more curious about what this means as I am about whether it is true since the latter depends upon the former.

    Stated objections against ‘linguistic determinism’ and ‘cultural determinism’ appear successful, but voicing the objections in these ways appears not to give them their due. Perhaps I’m mistaken to detect a bit of rhetoric in the titles you’ve given those two objections.

    Suppose the salient issue is not about what ethnically Western scholars of Chinese thought are capable of fully understanding but something like this: whether sentences in Chinese drawn from Analects have the same sense and the same reference for ethnically Western non-native speaking scholars of Chinese thought as they do for contemporary native-speaking Chinese scholars of Chinese thought.

    Does this approach your underlying concern? If so, then the issue becomes a bit more tractable through the mind sciences, or so I believe. For my part, speaking tentatively, we can probably infer from data from cross-cultural psychological experiments and experiments in neuroscience that, no, those sentences don’t have the same sense for trained Western scholars as for Chinese scholars.

    Comment by Ryan Nichols | February 3, 2011 | Reply

  4. Hey Alexus; been mulling this myself recently. As you probably recall, I presented a paper back in Dec 2009, on using Chinese terms rather than translations of them, in the teaching context (see: https://warpweftandway.wordpress.com/2009/12/29/is-a-little-bit-of-chinese-better-or-worse-than-none/ ). I agree that the two types of determinisms are questionable, but short of them, there’s something like a “wearing hats” adjustment to make, I think. And now I’m going to stretch that metaphor by talking in sports terminology.

    So, one way to think about it is to ask, why should we be trying to understand the one tradition — or parts of one tradition — using the terminology and/or motivating concerns of the other? My sports-analogy answer to that is that it can be helpful, briefly, until you get on your feet in the target tradition. Roughly, it’s like learning American football (‘football’ hence) if you are only familiar with soccer (‘futbol’ hence). You could begin by learning what the goals of football are — literally and more figuratively — by analogy to the goals of futbol. Some terms will have to be disambiguated — “field goal” for example; some rules will have to be transformed — what a player’s foot on the sideline means for being in or out of bounds. Nonetheless, some of these things will be helpful. But at some point, you’re playing or watching football and no longer thinking in terms of futbol to figure out what to do or how to react. You can appreciate one without making reference to the other at that point and depending on which one you’re playing or watching, you’re wearing a different hat. Maybe the ultimate goals are similar — to score more points than the other team, to further the bounds of excellence in the sport, etc. but lots of intermediate or constitutive goals — what constitutes scoring or winning — are different.

    That’s how it seems to me things are, roughly, for Western philosophy and Chinese philosophy. At some point, you’re no longer comparing and learning, but “playing” (or watching) one or the other. They’re both aimed at some kind of enlightenment (in a non-Buddhist sense), but the ways of attaining that or the constitutive goals for it — i.e. what constitutes the enlightenment — are different.

    The interesting comparative question for me, then, is whether sometimes we’re doing something much more difficult and unnecessarily so: trying to understand extremely different genres through the comparative approach hinted at by the sports analogy. Is it possible to learn football using the terms and rules of cricket? or even of baseball? Are we doing something equally roundabout in comparative philosophy? Wouldn’t it be easier just to learn football without making cricket the midwife? and likewise, respectively, for Chinese and Western philosophy?

    Comment by Manyul Im | February 4, 2011 | Reply

  5. Hi Alexus,

    I tend to agree with Manyul here and to just echo what I said on in another place, that like the metaphor of hats, in one real sense your argument itself is premised on a kantian premise (ie, that knowledge can be achieved in the abstract via the mind through books)….this shows in many ways how much our understanding of any philosophy is necessarily shaped and interpreted first via language and second very probably via the culture we are thinking and seeing the world…

    The most interesting question maybe is to ask to what extent do you think these philosophies are alive and reflected in culturally specific traditions, customs and contemporary values and philosophies? For example, as you know, I think I have gained more in terms of understanding Confucian sensibilities from “doing time” in east asia than from book study–but maybe that just means my book study is 不足?Or maybe it means that–like Manyul suggests–the only way to get beyond unhelpful references (like ‘de” as virtue) would be to take on the cultural and linguistic context as much as possible. And this is absolutely possible to anyone–no matter where they were born. But i do think it is very safe to say that an American researching chinese philosophy would start far, far behind the power curve at the get go. And, for sensibility and intuition, all we have probably is our body know how. Recently re-reading dante, though I was not raised in a Church at all, I have been really stunned at how familiar and easy to understand it is. It is so accessible just vis-a-vis my cultural background– the logic or ways of looking at the world…I would really question whether you think American undergraduates don’t have an easier time with Plato than Confucius. especially in terms of political philosophy but also the underlying of even what it means to be human. (though some quasi Buddhist new age concepts could also be familar as well– but those too are part of their American background I would argue…) Cheers, L

    Comment by peony | February 5, 2011 | Reply

  6. I think that the incommensurability problem is a red herring because there’s so much incommensurability everywhere. Even spouses, siblings, and lifelong friends occasionally come to dead ends where communication is impossible. This just means that perfect understanding of ANYTHING is impossible. (No constant Dao, no constant name).

    The strong versions of linguistic determinism (Whorf) have been pretty much forgotten. The general idea is that there’s a circular causality so that people who don’t have many dealings with something don’t talk about it much, and vice versa. But if they for some reason change their behavior, they find language for it.

    On the other hand, the places where language would be most dominant would probably be metaphysical philosophy (the true names) and lyric poetry — i.e., high culture.

    Finally, there’s the fact that for Westerners Chinese culture can represent the road not taken and be a welcome alternative. Somehow the Daodejing has become the most popular philosophy book in the English-speaking world, and that’s because of its differences. And a lot of pop Daoism is crap, but there’s also plenty of great stuff (for example, Herrymon Maurer’s reading of the DDJ from an Anabaptist spiritual perspective, a book written entirely from English language sources.)

    For me, about 2/3 of Western philosophy is antipathetic, whereas I loved the DDJ the first time I read it (Lau 1964, read in 1968). It’s likewise with Dante; I just can’t stand neo-Platonism anywhere I find it.

    Comment by John Emerson | February 5, 2011 | Reply

  7. Hi John,

    I think your use of the incommensurability problem is a red herring 😉
    (see jan’s coment on my facebook page–that is what I mean)
    I do agree that personal taste is very much at play as well… in the end, I guess 1) I remain in the philosophy/knowledge as practice camp (something that the philosophies in question here are also a part of probably) and 2) I believe that so far the translations of the Chinese philosophy remains a kind of mirror maybe… because of course, in another language of course you find language for what you need to express but the mode of expression of the language you find will probably vary from language to language…especially in languages as faraway in time and space as this.

    Comment by peony | February 5, 2011 | Reply

  8. There’s another level at which knowledge of the culture is necessary for understanding. Chinese culture was pretty hierarchical, with many relationships of the patron-client type, and all relationships were governed by relationships of reciprocal obligation. If you assume free and equal players, you’ll miss what the Chinese philosophers were talking about.

    What this requires is both knowledge of China and self-knowledge. Chinese society is not historically unusual, patron-client relations and webs of reciprocal obligation have dominated many societies to a greater or lesser degree. So a westerner learning Chinese philosophy will have to learn both to understand Chinese-type societies and to get a new perspective on his own, rather unusual society.

    On the other hand, a Chinese student of Chinese philosophy will be impeded by the particular adaptations for application in contemporary Chinese society, which can be quite misleading. (Some Chinese students I have talked to had a degree of aversion to the DDJ because so much of it was proverbial wisdom that they’d heard from their traditionalist elders.)

    Comment by John Emerson | February 5, 2011 | Reply

  9. Like I said, it depends on how much you think these philosophies are reflected in cultural traditions and languages. I am no expert but as a basic kind of commonsensical approach no matter what their impediments are, I’d still say Chinese students are less behind the understanding power curve than say I would have been at 18 (and hence their aversion is more authentic?)… and I have seen so little non-contaminated translation of chinese philosophy too… Also really have doubts about approaching this stuff as abstract philosohy (instead of as practice)..anyway– prefer facebook. ciao

    Comment by peony | February 5, 2011 | Reply

  10. Hi everyone-
    sorry I’m so late in responding to your comments; I was out of town for a couple of days this weekend, and now I’m teaching for the morning. Some good responses, which have helped me think more about this issue! Once I get through with teaching today and get some more time to settle in, I’ll try to offer some (hopefully relevant) responses.

    Comment by Alexus McLeod | February 7, 2011 | Reply

  11. more like the superbowl kept you away!! (hope your team won)… be sure to see Arnold’s comment on facebook thread as his case is very interesting, I think. An artist practing Chinese painting where he says the “natives” here have no real grasp about what he is doing. Knowing him and the way he works, it does seem to me that who you are or where you are is not the question as much as what language you are thinking in and what practices you take up–this in terms of gaining underderstanding, since philosophy is not math. (see the thread)… Francois Jullien’s new book is interesting too when you see the way he gets so bogged down in presenting the concepts.

    Comment by peony | February 7, 2011 | Reply

  12. Yes, I was back for the Super Bowl last night (and yes the team I wanted to see lose did lose ☺ ), but I really was gone for most of the weekend! University function, at a resort about an hour away from here.

    Perhaps “full understanding” wasn’t the right way to say it. I probably should have been more careful in saying that western scholars of Chinese philosophy should be able to come to as complete an understanding of Chinese thought as a Chinese scholar of Chinese philosophy, that cultural context has no bearing on whether they understand the philosophical tradition.

    Your point about the senses of sentences for western and Chinese scholars is an interesting one. I guess even if one concedes that point, though, one could argue that we don’t have reason to think the sense these sentences have for Chinese scholars should be any closer to those the ancients would have had than the sense they have for western scholars. I’ve seen lots of bad analyses of classical Chinese concepts done by contemporary Chinese scholars based on the sense certain words have ren 仁, yi 義, etc. in contemporary Mandarin, which are often very different than the sense they had in classical Chinese.
    Second, although I don’t want to take sides here :), I guess one might object to the Fregean approach…

    I am pretty much in agreement with your view here, I think (if I understand you correctly). I think the issue of language presents an interesting problem—do we need to write our papers and books in Chinese to be playing the same game as Confucius and Zhuangzi did, or can we play their game in English? I’m inclined to think we probably can do (at least most of it) it in English, but we can also do it without relying on concepts from the western philosophical tradition. And this is probably why we can and should leave important concepts untranslated, as you argued in your talk, especially so we don’t accidentally import some of the philosophical baggage attached to the English terms (although if we see them as a tag for dao, ren, etc. a lot of this might be avoided).

    Peony and John-
    I think that certain types of knowledge can (and can only) be attained through books (or other means of transmitting propositional content)—knowledge of the theory of general relativity, for example, or of Plato’s view of the Forms, or of any philosophical position in general, I’d argue, can only be understood in the abstract through books or other written or spoken accounts, because these are just the kinds of things theories are—abstract accounts of the way some feature of the world works, expressed in language. If anything stands in the way of understanding theories in this way, it would have to be linguistic barriers, but it’s unclear to me language does stand in the way, mainly because I doubt that anything that could be expressed in Chinese could not be expressed in English, and vice versa (coy response above aside, I guess it’s becoming pretty clear where I stand on Frege….). I guess our main dispute is the extent to which we think philosophical views are reflected in or otherwise implicit in cultural practices. I see very little of cultural life in general that I would take to be in a substantive way connected to the philosophical positions within the various traditions, but that might just be because of the scope of what I consider philosophically relevant. I wouldn’t for example, consider a Chinese cultural focus (comparatively to Americans) on care for and obedience to elders as connected to the Confucian philosophical justifications for filiality, such that people within Chinese culture who operate consistently with these norms will be better able to understand the philosophical justification given for filiality in the Analects and how this fits into the larger ethical system of the Confucians. I see the two things, cultural practice and philosophical theory, as largely distinct. A philosophical theory might entail that various actual cultural practices are morally obligatory, but it seems to me that the philosophical justification for a practice offered by some philosopher or other isn’t necessarily (or even often) reflected in these cultural practices. How many Americans link their sense of individualism, for example, to Kant’s conception of autonomous moral agency? How many of us understand Lockean social contract theory as a result of implicitly accepting and acting in accord with liberal democratic values? And even if there were some connection between these cultural practices and values and understanding of the philosophical justifications for them, it’s unclear that we would gain a better understanding of the philosophical justification for a cultural practice we are not engaged in than one who is engaged in it, just on the basis of lack of engagement. It seems to me that I can understand the theories grounding Confucian communalism Just as well (and probably better) than I understand the theories grounding liberal democracy (which I actually take issue with in a number of ways), even though I have lived all my life in a culture practicing and implicitly accepting the values of liberal democracy.

    This is not to say there is nothing to be gained from exposure to cultural practices consistent with the position of some philosopher or other. It could turn out that there are really bad practical difficulties with Confucian communalism that one might discover on living within a culture accepting of such communalism, and that one hadn’t thought of before. But it’s unclear that 1) this kind of understanding of the practical results of certain views could only be gained through living within a community that accepts this view and engages in practices based on it and not through, well, books; 2) even if this kind of understanding can only be gained through living in the right community or cultural context, it’s far from clear that this problematizes how much one outside the relevant cultural context can be said to understand the philosophical theory grounding the view. If I fail to be aware of some practical difficulty with communism, for example, arising out of its practice in a certain cultural and historical context, does this show that I fail to understand the economic and philosophical theory grounding communism in some way that a person within the communist community does not? I don’t think so. It seems to me that whether and why a theory is correct is a distinct issue from understanding what the theory is. The phlogiston theory, for example (set aside things like Plato’s theory of Forms, as it’s not clear that any empirical observation would be able to settle the question of whether it’s correct), turned out to be false, and it was improved empirical observation that showed it so. This doesn’t entail that a person privy to the empirical data falsifying the phlogiston theory understood or understands the theory any better than those who devised it—but rather that they understand the world better, so they understand why the phlogiston theory isincorrect. (This question as to what extent understanding of a theory is linked to understanding its practical consequences is an interesting question in itself—I remember getting into a debate with Hagop on this question some time back, maybe in one of the comment threads here on WW&W?).

    Finally, on the question of western and Chinese students and their understanding of Chinese philosophical material—I have actually found that my western students tend to understand Confucius just about as well (and in some cases better) than they understand Plato or Aquinas. Of course, this might be due in part to the fact that I as their teacher probably understand Confucius better than I do Plato or Aquinas. But on the “cultural determinist” view, this shouldn’t be possible, as I’ve spent all my life in a culture that understands its own practices as continuous with those endorsed and justified by the theories of Plato and Aquinas (among others).

    Comment by Alexus McLeod | February 7, 2011 | Reply

  13. I suppose in the end, I would say that whether they link their understanding of individual autonomy to kant or not, any student raised in a society where these concepts are firmly embedded in the legal and cultural practices would come to the philosophy ahead of the power curve and their “understanding” too would be fuller in the sense that they would have more reference points in terms of how the concepts function (practically).

    Yes, some things—as I said and you said—are only knowable via abstract book learning. This is NOT one them… How do I back that up? Well, the original project was a philosophy that was aiming at practical advice for living a good life (rather than any attempt at proving deductively Universal Truth). So, we are back to how much of this ancient advice remains reflected in cultural practices today? I would say plenty. Think Korea. Think Japan (Japanese Law). Think some aspects of political life in Singapore.
    (I am not even thinking of China because Marxist-Hegelian thinking is very much a part of that intellectual life; therefore I don’t doubt that they easily comprehend the European tradition as well as the Chinese one)

    If you say that your American students find it just as easy to understand the analects as the republic, I suppose I have to just take your word on that. And yet even a quick glance at this field shows quite a lot of mistaken translations and mis-perceptions. But maybe the same can be said in terms of Plato scholarship? From my point of view, I have found the japanese scholarship much more stimulating and less full of what seems like mis-steps but you know… who is to say? I would have thought having shared the kanji and having shared the Confucian tradition the japanese scholars would have been in a better position to access the material but I actually don’t know. I do believe, however, that language is essential and that a scholar with strong language skills—classical modern, Chinese and japanese—would be far better placed to do this work than someone without those skills… but then again… (I am feeling really wishwashy today), a person coming at this from a modern european philosophy background (someone like the brilliant CP) could also do some really interesting stuff… No mattter what though, they would be doing something “alternative”—which is not a bad thing, right?

    Thanks for letting me be part of the discussion and congrats to your team! xoxox L

    Comment by peony | February 7, 2011 | Reply

  14. I feel that no fixed viewpoint should be taken on this matter. I suspect that a “Westerner” like yourself will not understand certain things written over 2000 years ago in the East as easily as a modern “Easterner.” But there surely are things you can understand just perfectly well because, among other things, we are all human beings who share very many of the same goals (e.g. eat/have enough food, avoid pain, enjoy good friendship), and have many of the same experiences (cf. Philosophy in the Flesh by Lakoff & Johnson). I suspect there are very many factors that play a role in whether someone, whether from the East or West or from the 21st century or the 4th century B.C.E., will understand some writing by ancient Chinese philosophers. Let’s not forget no culture is static, Chinese culture today has evolved (meant neutrally: I do not intend it to contrast with ‘devolve.’) since its roots, as has “Western culture.” A modern Westerner might now be “ready” to grasp something once uttered in ancient China. A modern Chinese person’s mind might be the result of his culture branching off in other directions and the person’s whole way of thinking is now quite distant from an ancient root.
    Is there only one root to a culture?
    What is a “Westerner”? What is “Chinese”? If a particular Chinese person’s grandparents and parents were educated in Europe or America does this not shape the development of that person’s mind and ways of going about things, (one’s dao)?

    Good health and harmony to you 🙂

    Comment by Scott | February 12, 2011 | Reply

  15. Hi Scott-
    Thanks for your comments. I’ve been thinking about this issue a bit more in the past couple of days, and I think I’m closing in on a better way to express my position, and what I think the main difference is between myself and opponents on this issue.

    I think I’ve isolated part of what’s going on. What position one takes on this issue seems to depend on the extent to which one thinks that philosophy is linked to cultural practice(s). I don’t think they’re linked at all, any more than theoretical physics has important links to cultural practices. But I think philosophy sometimes seems to be linked to cultural practices because it is often engaged in as justification for cultural practices of some kind or other. Even then, however, philosophical theory and justifications are distinct from the practices they attempt to justify. The distinction between normative moral rules and ethical theory is useful here—the same list of moral rules might be justified by two very different ethical theories, using very different concepts, background assumptions, etc. For example, the moral rule “one should avoid harming others” might be justified on utilitarian, Kantian, egoist, or even Confucian grounds. These are all very different ethical systems, but they all purport in some sense or other to justify the same practice—that is, not harming others. So it looks like in this case, accepting or acting in accordance with some moral rule like this neither commits one to any particular ethical theory nor entails that one is committed to any ethical theory at all!

    One way of stating my point is to say that philosophical theories are underdetermined by cultural and linguistic practices. There are certain cultural practices and attitudes in the west (valuing of autonomy, democracy, etc.) that philosophers have offered support for in various ways, but these philosophical justifications are independent from the practices and attitudes themselves. Thus, because one accepts that autonomy is valuable and democracy is best, this does not show that one will even understand, let alone agree with, Kant, Locke or Rousseau. To hold that in general cultural practices come along with some philosophical justification or other seems to me to assume that people come to engage in the cultural practices they do via philosophical reasoning, which I just haven’t seen to be the case.
    Generally, when I ask students or others why they value autonomy or democracy (or any other set of their values or practices), they don’t have an answer, because they’ve never really thought about it. They simply accept it as cultural value. Philosophers, even though we attempt to give rational justification for things, are notoriously bad at understanding how human behavior actually works. People adopt cultural practices and values based on mirroring, and very seldom is any philosophical (or other) justification involved, which is why I claimed in my comments above that I doubt that we “imbibe esoteric philosophical concepts through our cultural milieu.” I find that my Chinese students, for example, may understand the idea of filiality as caring for and respecting parents, but this never seems to help them understand the philosophical justification for filiality, how the Confucians understand it, and its place in Confucian ethical theory. They understand it from simply a cultural practice standpoint (“we are supposed to be filial,” etc.) I’ve had papers from Chinese students along these very lines—offering interesting explanation of how things like filiality manifest themselves in Chinese life, but evincing very little understanding of the Confucian concept of filiality and its place in the ethical system in general. This seems to be another example showing the independence of cultural practice and philosophical theory.

    From the little I know about some strains of pragmatism, I take it that philosophy is there seen as linked to cultural practice in the ways I reject above. Maybe this is core of the disagreement here. I’ve never found pragmatism (and its close relatives) particularly plausible. If this issue does boil down to one of pragmatism vs. “non-pragmatism” (for lack of a better term), I guess that although this would shift my objection to a different target altogether, it would reveal an interesting link…

    Comment by Alexus McLeod | February 12, 2011 | Reply

  16. Alexus,

    Just a quick response and as I am not sure this is really leading anywhere productive or interesting.

    I was aiming very very low: my argument was only to suggest that cultural practices and languages are not nothing (and hence helps to explain the “alternative” label to a point). Whether the philosophy informs the cultural practices or the philosophy explains and validates the social practices, it makes no difference since either way one is linked to the other and therefore, obviously, understanding one would facilitate understanding the other. My own position never demanded a static culture nor made any claims about race. So Scott’s comments do not speak to my argument in any way (I want to be clear about that as I think his comments are a gross mis-respresentation and therefore pretty inappropriate. And I would have thought you would have grasped the point, Alexus, that no one has ever been arguing for a fixed perspective or a fixed culture or whatever???).

    Rather than theoretic physics, literature might be a better analogy. Understanding the cultural context and being able to access the source language of the litarary source will enrich one’s understanding of the intellectual concepts but these are not necessarily required.
    (pure logic and abstract philosophy is different of course and so I suppose the burden of proof is with you to somehow show how the project here is similar to that of physics and how this relates to the language and culture…and I am not saying it can’t be done….)

    For what its worth, Karyn Lai, has spoken about some of the challenges she has come up against teaching Australian students Confucian philosophy. I think maybe if you were teaching in the second language to foreign students some of the cultural issues will be more clear. But one of her specific examples that comes to mind was her discussion of teaching about a parent who commits a crime and how the “moral” behavior entails shielding the parent—because the Australian tradition has prioritized different philosophical values, she says, is difficult for students to wrap their minds around…

    Finally a small point but I found it interesting that your argument itself—not to mention how it is argued and the examples you utilize—do derive from the Western tradition which leads me to believe that your upbringing and education did in fact have impact on your thinking.

    Comment by peony | February 12, 2011 | Reply

  17. I take it that Scott’s point (if I understand it correctly) was not to suggest that anyone is arguing that culture is fixed, but to point out that its fluidity seems to problematize the positions on both sides of this debate.

    Concerning my argument–I don’t think it’s all that uniquely western. Philosophers in the Indian tradition (especially the Buddhists) argued that way all the time, as did some of the Eastern Han thinkers-especially you-know who :). I do use some terminology arising from the western tradition, such as “underdetermination of theory by data,” but the ancient Indians were well aware of this idea too, they just didn’t call it the same thing.

    Also-I think your use of literature is apt here. In fact, this might be what’s actually at the core of our disagreement: whether philosophy (at least in certain traditions) is more similar to theoretical physics or literature. I suppose different philosophical projects could be more or less like one or the other. The question becomes, then, how should we understand the relevant early Chinese philosophical systems (or maybe there are differences here between them, with, say, Zhuangzi being more akin to literature than, say, Xunzi or Mozi?).

    Comment by Alexus McLeod | February 12, 2011 | Reply

  18. Yes, I think that is exactly what is at issue here… My own background was first continental philosophy and phenomenology and then classical japanese literature. In both cases, fluidity of culture did not problematize anyting. it is all just case-by-case: what philosophy and what culture and what issue are you looking at? One would not need to live in modern day tokyo and be fluent in modern Japanese to read and enjoy genji, but it would help tremendously for grasping certain points and for accessing types of patterns of thinking that possibly could be embedded in the language itself (though classical japaneese is a world apart from the modern language). Maybe just because we are speaking in english and all those words like Kant and pragmatisim came popping out but I did feel that you were really relying on a western approach but maybe not…I am not even sure we disagree on anything except that I don’t think the philosophy in question was really aiming at universal truths so then I wonder about the physics (knowledge in a vacuum) analogy… jan walls left some nice comments to this on my FB wall… see the one on Li Bai and the moon… i am thinking along those lines and that is the most I am saying I guess….

    Comment by peony | February 12, 2011 | Reply

  19. “I take it that Scott’s point (if I understand it correctly) was not to suggest that anyone is arguing that culture is fixed, but to point out that its fluidity seems to problematize the positions on both sides of this debate.” Thank you Alexus. In no way whatsoever was my reply addressing anything Peony had written. I read many (but not all) of the replies in this thread and just decided to share my thinking on the matter.
    I can’t agree with you though that philosophy and cultural practices are “not linked at all.” It seems strange that you would say this, so, perhaps I’m not understanding you.

    Comment by Scott "Bao Pu" Barnwell | February 13, 2011 | Reply

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