Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

Teaching Chinese Thought: Observations on Pedagogy

Regular blog reader Joel Dietz offers his thoughts, in this guest post, on teaching Chinese thought—mainly as viewed from the “consumer” or student end of the interaction. In the comments, please respond to Joel.

Despite the recent interest in China from an economic perspective, relatively few colleges offer courses which attempt to offer an “Introduction to Chinese Thought” or, perhaps more ambitiously, an “Introduction to Chinese Philosophy.” Indeed, in a recent course providing an introduction to Chinese classical thought at the University of Pennsylvania, it was unclear what if any, Ivy League institutions, besides the University of Pennsylvania and Brown University offer such a course (presumably others do, and it would be delightful to know the details).  As an undergraduate at Brown studying with Henry Rosemont and Harold Roth, graduate student at Penn, and reviewer of other related syllabi, especially those for a comparative philosophy class offered by Chris Fraser at Hong Kong University, I make some preliminary pedagogical observations extrapolated from my experience, including related benefits and challenges.

The first challenge is “selling” the course to the presumably undergraduate students who have many other courses that they could be taking, and which must be undertaken by the wary professor with both convincing rationale and fitting rhetoric.  As for rationale, I believe it is highly useful that undergraduates, especially those with a specific interest in philosophy or any sort of theory, be acquainted with some of the formative thought in a non-Western philosophical tradition. This suggestion derives from what may be a controversial supposition that Western philosophy, particularly modern forms derived from an analytical, quantitative, or pragmatic traditions, do not offer a comprehensive picture of the world and related phenomena. Indeed, this is something of a classicist position. Venerable ancient texts that have long been perceived as valuable are worth reading simply for this reason, that the collective opinion of generations of highly educated people in a given civilization is the best and perhaps only way to understand the mindset (or, more accurately, Weltanschauung) produced by that civilization.

I believe this rationale can be presented to virtually all students with some success, given that virtually every student engaged in any field in the modern world — if they deal with people at all — will be forced to deal with Chinese people. A productive marketing slogan could be, consequently, that the course will help students understand how and why Chinese (and others influenced by the Confucian tradition) think the way that they do – since, undoubtedly, even with the cultural revolution, the formative elements of the Confucian tradition continue to have a strong influence. This is doubly true for students of Chinese ancestry who may be unaware of their own cultural traditions. Admittedly, this does mean tweaking the course somewhat to use some class time to examine contemporary examples of how various elements articulated in the Analects, etc. remain reified in Chinese culture, but I believe this is a small price to pay for having more students who are more engaged and who come out of the course with an appreciation of the continued relevance of ancient thought.

This, however, makes the endeavor primarily a work of cultural history and not entirely an introduction to “philosophy,” since the one may end up focusing on social behaviors and texts rather than ideas themselves. This problem, which is hardly unique to the subfield of Chinese philosophy, is undoubtedly more pronounced here, since, despite a few opaque references in the Dao De Jing, metaphysical thought in structured form was not present until Han Dynasty “Dark Learning,” and even here frequently made subject to a dogmatic Confucianism. Thinkers like Wang Bi, if extraordinarily difficult in the original, are (in the opinion of this author) even more incomprehensible in translation. Further problematizing things, is that, the entire project of philosophizing appears to be strongly disparaged by one of the canonical “philosophical” texts, the Zhuangzi.

An alternative rationale would be the emergence of natural philosophy and, at a later period, science in China, which would have immediate relevance to the Western enlightenment era.  Unfortunately, virtually every academic to touch the subject disagrees substantively about the reasons for the lack of emergence of a robust scientific tradition in China, and this seems a topic that cannot be successfully addressed in an introductory class.  At the same time fairly obvious analogues to the numerological, astrological, cosmological, and other forms of “magical” thinking do appear in both the Presocratics and, more obviously, in Neoplatonic systems. While none of these are typically covered in survey courses of Western philosophy, and only peripherally in works on the evolution of cosmological systems, they nonetheless await a longer analysis that may prove interesting fodder for thoughtful undergraduates.

This problem, even if it may be dodged by people already in the field, effectively damns any serious recognition of “Chinese philosophy” within academic philosophical circles defined in traditional ways (the rationale for these traditional delineations will not be discussed, except to say that there is one) – leaving those in the subfield talking to each other unless they attempt to find a comparative approach (at times derived from some sort of nascent cognitive science or neurobiology). This leaves would be pedagogues with presenting thought with important social implications or focusing on interesting but obscure things like Mohist logic, which were not continued and have little or no historical relevance.  Given these foci, it is no surprise that both courses I took focused on a near identical set of texts: the Analects, Dao De Jing, Zhuangzi, Mozi, Mencius, Xunzi, Hanfeizi, and Sunzi Bingfa.

Translations chosen were also similar: Rosemont/Ames and Lau for the Analects (both bilingual); Lau and Hendricks for the Dao De Jing; Watson for Mozi, Hanfeizi, and Xunzi; Mair for the Zhuangzi; Griffith for the Sunzi Bingfa. On these texts, each Analects translation has its perks. Despite its age and the occasional error, Legge frequently remains closest to the spirit of the original by his choice of religiously-tinted language, while Rosemont/Ames, despite general accuracy, sometimes over philosophizes. Slingerland provides more commentary than may be warranted for an undergraduate course and which may unduly influence the first reading of the text, while Lau frequently over interprets and there are numerous instances of poor word choice. Consequently, I would be inclined to choose Rosemont/Ames or Slingerland, depending on the amount of time spent on the text (Slingerland if more, Rosemont/Ames if less). I don’t favor any particular DDJ translation, though Lau is acceptable he needs to be read carefully against the original, and despite a plethora of available translations, perspicacious introductions are few. Watson is more or less a given for the HFZ, Mozi and Xunzi. Mair presents a colorful and eminently readable Zhuangzi that is true to the literary form of the original, if to be read against Graham and Watson on difficult passages (of which there are no few). As for Sunzi Bingfa, the Griffith translation contains numerous errors that are absent in more recent translations (I prefer Mair to Denma, but have never carefully read either of them against Ames or Sawyer).

Curiously although not surprisingly, texts which did not contain any obvious philosophizing were generally neglected. This was most prominent with the Book of Changes, the Book of Odes, and Classic of Rites (禮記), all of which are extremely important. Despite strengths in other areas, I personally believe this method of teaching the Confucian tradition renders it somewhat sterile. Confucius would probably have much preferred that students a couple thousand years continue memorizing the odes than carefully reading attributed sayings that he apparently made very little effort to put down into writing (besides hiding them in his house, of course).  The challenge of presenting other texts is enhanced by the fact that one would have to provide a greater degree of context around them, and I believe that this is something that can be enhanced by a greater degree of scholarly collaboration. If relevant quotations from the above works (with or without a fresh translation) were compiled in such a way that they could be used in as a classroom text, contemporary students would be able to better appreciate the wide range of material drawn on by the Confucian tradition.

As for the pedagogical method, one class contained a fairly typical lecture and response, where perhaps the majority of each class was taken up with a presentation of relevant themes from the assigned reading, whereas the other was dominated by questions that the students came up with while reading the texts, with occasional interventions involving careful reading of specific passages and attention to relevant themes. I do not particularly favor one over the other, so long as the students are engaged by the material enough to come up with good questions. Two particularly useful teaching tools were used. The first of these was the attention to specific themes and ideas spanning multiple texts – for instance evolving conceptions of  “nature” 性 and debates over their usage in Mencius and Xunzi. It is particularly helpful when attention is drawn to the theme in the earlier text and mentioned for the second, so that the student can be attentive to the reading in the second text. A second was the use of interesting teaching aids, for example the memorization and recitation of a favorite passage from the Analects. I find such aids help students engage with the material, and strongly favor tools of these sort, even the classroom practice of (speculatively) reconstructed breathing practices as likely advocated for by the authors of the Dao De Jing or engaging in some of the stretching postures found in the Mawangdui 馬王堆 silk scroll.  Another useful technique not employed in either class but employed by Chris Fraser is the creation of handouts with short quotations of other classical and philosophical texts from other traditions. This would better indicate points of contrast and similarity between Chinese and other pre-modern philosophical traditions on issues such a transcendent order to the universe, the relation of ritual to life, or the interplay between the rule of law and the family.

Though both of these classes appear to have been successful in imparting a greater degree of knowledge (and hopefully also wisdom), I think a challenge remains in convincing both academic institutions and students of the relevance and, in fact, necessity, of engaging seriously with early thought. The most promising prospects for deeper institutional engagement appear to be twofold. First, is the presence of instructive materials at a secondary or collegiate level that can serve to better acquaint students with other traditions, a lack of awareness which has reached a deplorable level. These are not necessarily limited to presentations of classical thought. Indeed, institutions, especially those with a religious flavor, would likely utilize good curriculum that spans memorization of traditional poems and phrases from the Three Character Classic. Culture here can be transmitted simply as culture, although there may also be moral implications. Second, is the emergence of highly effective healing modalities based on traditional Chinese and Indian medical traditions, including a growing number of clinical studies which indicate the efficacy of meditation and yoga for dealing with psychological and chronic conditions that could previously be treated only by long-term drugs or surgery – if at all.  Philosophy stands to benefit as it provides an exposition of the natural philosophy from which these modalities emerged (e.g. early theories and debates concerning the nature of Qi).

The real needs in both of these areas can be a channel for academics to engage with not just the research interests of their colleagues in the academy, but also the needs of their students who may be pursuing or interested in other non-academic fields. Indeed, if they were to do so, it would be consistent with the orientation of the Chinese civilization, which at its peak presented a wealth of artistic and other achievements in a context comparatively free of the religious dogmatism that has haunted the West. Thankfully, the scientific orientation of Western civilization, even if it does not present a complete picture of reality (let alone human anatomy), nonetheless is able ascertain the efficacy of various techniques not originating within our traditionally defined borders. This same spirit of openness and earnest evaluation is equally appropriate in a pedagogical context. In my opinion, the ultimate test of our teaching is whether or not both we and our students put it into practice, both by means of greater understanding of other traditions and, optimally, by actually following our chosen Way 道 according to the best of our understanding and ability.


November 2, 2011 - Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Pedagogy


  1. Joel, I’m intrigued by the memorization execise that you mention. What purpose would you say it served? I wonder if other folks reading this post have either used, or experienced, similar “teaching tools.” I ask in part because I’ve decided to try something similar: next week in my “Philosophy as a Way of Life” class, we’ll be discussing Zhu Xi’s approach to reading in Monday’s class; then part of the assignment for Wednesday is to choose a moderately long Analects passage, and approach it in the way Zhu recommends: repeated reading, memorization, reflection, and “making it one’s own.” I’ll call on a few students randomly in Wednesday’s class to have them recite and then give us their personal refleciton on the passage’s meaning to them. It’ll be interesting to see what we learn from this!

    Comment by Steve Angle | November 2, 2011 | Reply

    • Yes, very interesting!

      Of course one would expect that the sheer repetition involved in memorizing any passage would lead students to pay more attention to it, think harder about it, and (or but) be more likely to respect and believe it. (I know a Baptist minister who is incapable of having a conversation without saying the same paragraph several times in a row; I suspect it’s because his livelihood is centered on getting himself and others to believe things for which reasons are unavailable.)

      What’s interesting to me about the idea of memorization is that it might shed light on the philosophical strength of the early Chinese work, by shedding light on the core function of the philosophical genres of the anecdote and pithy saying, and on how these genres differ from the genre of the philosophical theory or putative moral rule or principle. In the Western tradition, I suppose, one thinks that of course a theory or principle, insofar as it’s worth taking seriously as a candidate for the truth, is worth remembering; but the usual picture is that what one should remember is the gist, the content rather than anyone’s exact wording, so one doesn’t think of “memorizing.” Remembering the gist of something is easier; it is supposed to follow very close upon understanding the thing. One thinks of the function or use of a theory or putative rule as being largely exhausted in the thing’s inferential relations, which are a matter of the gist rather than the wording. The use of a pithy saying is different, and the ways to evaluate it are probably very different. For example, I imagine it is easier for a society to develop a general attitude toward a pithy saying, based on people’s experience, than for a society to develop a general attitude toward an abstract proposition; so it might make more sense to respect established views in evaluating pithy sayings than in evaluating abstract propositions on similar topics. ??

      Comment by Bill Haines | November 3, 2011 | Reply

    • Hi Bill–Intriguing thoughts. One aspect that I’m thinking about has less to do with the role of memorization in coming to *believe* something, than its role in a process of shaping, transforming, or cultivating one’s dispositions or character. (Of course, belief may well play a role in such a process.) Two specific thoughts: (1) It seems like belief, perhaps especially belief in the “gist” of a theory, seems compatible with keeping it at a kind of psychological distance, with room for rationalization, forgetting to apply the rule, its being overridden by other (perhaps inapt) considerations—and in general, serving as the “shallow knowledge” that Neo-Confucians criticize. (2) Zhu Xi specifically emphasizes making the words (typically, of the sages) one’s own. That means focusing on the distinctive saying, which may initially seem somewhat alien (after all, one has not “put it in one’s own words,” which is the gist idea), but then working with it, reflecting on it, and so on. It seems that this process is designed to *change* one, a bit like gradually working a peg into a hole that doesn’t quite fit at the beginning.

      Comment by Steve Angle | November 3, 2011 | Reply

    • Hi Steve.

      What I wanted to say about believing really applies to any kind of acceptance, I think. That is, I just wanted to warn against drawing any conclusions about the special merits of Text T from the fact that students who have repeated it twenty times a day for a week come to find it profound and attractive, and tend to change in the direction that it indicates. Repetition of any somewhat interesting text will tend to have that kind of effect, and a text can even be interesting just because one knows that other people are repeating it. Less filling! Tastes great! Nixon’s the One. I will not chew gum in class. And I think these points apply not just to repeating something, but also to repeatedly hearing it, acting and speaking as though one accepts it, and deliberately trying to reflect on it for five minutes a day, etc. (Except that this last exercise won’t work if the thing is easy to recognize as wrong.)

      But of course the fact that repetition (etc.) has such effects is interesting and very relevant to the topic of genres.

      I think (A) you make one or two points about what believing isn’t, and I think (B) you are saying that believing falls short in those ways especially insofar we’re talking about believing gists (propositions) rather than about believing sentences. I think the latter point is exactly backwards.

      The first of the one or two points is (if I may put it this way) that “believing” isn’t necessarily believing. That is, there is a shallow simulacrum of believing that doesn’t have to be very closely tied to drawing the logical inferences, — or if you prefer, no state we can easily recognize in practice as “believing” can be one that necessarily involves drawing all the logical inferences.

      I think this first point about believing is related to the (rough) distinction between sentences and propositions (gists), and it’s a point mainly about sentences rather than propositions, i.e. wording as opposed to gist. That is, it’s easy to see how someone can accept a sentence (utter it, think it, nod to it, glue it to the bumper) without actually drawing the requisite inferences. (I think of Mill’s point in “On Liberty” about Christian slogans.) But if we try to conceive what it is to accept a proposition, as distinct from accepting a sentence, I think we find it harder, not easier, to separate that acceptance conceptually from the actual drawing of the inferences.

      The second of your two points – well, I don’t know if this is a point you meant to make. Anyway the point itself is that believing a proposition (e.g. a moral proposition) isn’t transformative, as accepting an anecdote or slogan can be; or else the point is that when we think about believing propositions we’re not envisioning transformation as a desired result.

      That seems to me very plausible about some propositions and not very plausible about some others — the latter being those that are on the topics at issue here.

      Maybe instead of that second point, your point is that while the mainstream anglo conception of philosophy conceives philosophy as being about formulating and evaluating propositions, and hence is especially concered with belief (a necessary condition of knowing-that), whose possible transformative effects might be one of the common Western reasons to do philosophy, especially moral philosophy – –by contrast, Chinese philosophy has aimed more directly at transformation and has used sentences and other verbal objects – (not mainly: propositions) as tools in this effort.

      That seems plausible to me, and it brings me back to the question: what then is going on exactly with those strings of words in Chinese philosophical practice?

      If we thought the core thing slogans do is to express propositions (e.g. ought-propositions), then it would be easy to make a case that the project of taking some slogan and intentionally “making it one’s own” independently of seeing reasons to accept it, might be intellectually destructive: a kind of mortification of the mind. (Though it might have compensating effects, as when by repetition I trick myself into believing or half-believing that every time I tell a lie an angel gets a painful rash.)

      What interests me is the question how, say, we can legitimately use sentences for personal change (or other salutary effect) other than by way of the propositions they express, and what are the individual and social norms that can keep the project realistic, civilized and progressive.

      I’d love to hear what you learn about that from your class experiment!

      Comment by Bill Haines | November 4, 2011 | Reply

    • Bill, terrific and stimulating thoughts, as always! Your core question is this: What interests me is the question how, say, we can legitimately use sentences for personal change (or other salutary effect) other than by way of the propositions they express, and what are the individual and social norms that can keep the project realistic, civilized and progressive.

      I agree with you that the mere fact that repeated encounter with Text T influences someone, does not give us a reason to think Text T is somehow valuable. This observation seems related to Mohist methodology: namely, (1) the awareness of the effects of our language use (e.g., “There are ghosts”) on our behavior (though for the Mohists, the sentence vs. proposition may not have been salient); and therefore (2) the proposal of means to evaluate potential doctrines (sets of words) to see which ones we should adopt.

      As far as the problem with mere belief that I was trying to get at, let me try to put it this way. (I think that this is closely related to the ideas in your “Maybe instead of that second point” paragraph.) A situation needs to be seen in the right way—seen via the right set of categories—in order for beliefs to activate and potentially guide one. And these perceptions need to be robust enough that one cannot easily talk oneself out of seeing the situation in those terms. What I speculate memorization of Zhu Xi’s kind does is to prime our perceptual machinery to view the world in terms of a specific set of normative concepts. Psychologists nowadays talk of becoming a moral “chronic,” when one’s moral categories are primed in such a way that one readily views the world in these terms.

      So the general idea is: simply learning to believe that Xs ought to Y is not a very reliable way to ensure behavior Y. I suppose one can have quite a mastery of the relevant inferential patterns and still fail to reliably do Y in apt circumstances.

      Two conclusions. (A) Specific words matter, and so genres matter, because only some genres are conducive to the kind of memorization that has the aforementioned effects on perceptual priming. Supposing one could memorize Kant’s Groundwork, I doubt it would have any effects of these kinds! (B) The question of whether these are good effects is still open, and depends on that nature of the source text. Zhu Xi owes us a story about why it is good for us to be shaped in the ways that people are typically shaped through an encounter with the Classics. He has such a story, whether or not we find it convincing…but that is a matter for another conversation.

      What do you think?

      Comment by Steve Angle | November 4, 2011 | Reply

    • I think the initial purpose that it served is that it exposed people to the practice historically associated with the text rather than simply the text itself. I think one of the things we may be guilty of as scholars (I’m not so sure I qualify as a scholar at the moment, but assuming) is over-privileging textual sources — and I don’t just mean as evidence, but also in our teaching style. I know it may not be conventional, but I don’t see any reason not to use whatever else we might draw on to engage the students. Here don’t simply mean engaging for the purpose of increasing enrollment, but to actually help people learn what, for example, the Confucian tradition was or, more specifically, what Confucius advocated. Of course, a lot of this stuff is obscured by the sands of time, but why not uncover and use what we can?

      I’ll add that I grew up in a somewhat traditional Christian setting where memorization was used as a tool to inculcate certain patterns of behavior and, in my opinion, it worked remarkably well at just that. Frequent, attentive repetition of certains pattern of behavior (i.e. rites, poetry) also seems to work well to instill a certain aesthetic sensibility which then is retained in other contexts. I personally think that Confucius — and this is a source of great personal appeal — is as much an aesthetician as he is a philosopher.

      What I mean is Confucius is first and foremost a curator of objects of artistic value (e.g. rites, folk songs, music), and secondarily a thinker about their significance (though it would probably it would probably take me a dissertation or more to establish this).

      To bring things back to the classroom, I think there is always a fine line between advocacy and exploration that we have to be aware of when undertaking these sorts of experiments. In the sense of Confucius, I find this somewhat easier to navigate since there is a strong aesthetic component and one could (and probably should in the opinion of Confucius) memorize an ode instead of an attributed aphorism.

      Comment by Joel Dietz (@fractastical) | November 6, 2011 | Reply

    • There is a very practical reason to encourage memorisation: Confucian Classics tend to be dense. A lot of information is packed into a few verses. This information must be drawn out by commentaries. The structure of Confucianism is like weaving: the Classics are the warp, while the commentaries are the weft. Alternatively, the Classics are like the seed, while the commentaries are like the trunk, branches, and leaves. Layers and layers of commentaries are built upon a single passage. Without memorisation, it’s really hard to follow a commentary, much less compare different commentaries.

      Traditionally, the student memorises the core text. Then, the teacher explains the text line by line. Whenever the student recites a passage from the core text, the additional explanation springs to mind as though at his fingertip.

      It’s really hard to retain knowledge from commentaries without memorisation. It goes in one ear and out another. Plus, the Classics all cross-reference each other. Ideally, before a student reads Mencius, he would already know the relevant passages in Shangshu and Shijing by heart. Mencius simply draws out the meaning of these passages.

      Comment by Justice&Mercy | November 7, 2011 | Reply

    • Steve: That’s very interesting and very helpful. It sheds bright light on the whole business for me. Still …

      Q: Here’s a genre I think I grasp: indicative sentences expressing propositions. But what’s a poem?
      A: A poem can change how you see things, if you dwell on it.

      Q’s question is a really hard one. But it seems to me that A doesn’t really address the question. A’s answer isn’t aimed at trying to give an account of a genre or to even say how it directly works. (One way to see that it isn’t is to note that what A says is plainly true of many things that are not poems, including many sentences expressing propositions. Maybe what A says isn’t true of all indicative sentences expressing propositions; but that’s for pretty much the same reasons that it probably isn’t true of all poems.)

      The genre that has specially interested me is that of the pithy saying (言), such as we find offered and discussed in the Analects. Your mention of “moderately long” passages draws attention toward the Anecdote as a separate genre, one that might shed light on the Pithy Saying – and also recalls that a reader of the Analects should think about those bits of recorded conversation not just as evidence of statements made by Confucius (or whomever), but also as tiny dramas. And maybe the genre of the tiny drama is easier at first to grasp than, and illuminating about, the genre of the pithy saying.

      The root of what interests me in the genre of the pithy saying might be expressed this way: Often the sentence that constitutes a Pithy Saying can also be read as a putative definition of a virtue, or a putative moral rule. (And that point seems crucial to the operation of the pithy saying.) But what counts as the statement’s being right or good qua pithy saying is different from what counts as the statement’s being right or good qua definition or rule. For example, among pithy sayings, the Golden Rule is as good as it gets. But one can easily think of any number of different kinds of ways in which the Golden Rule seems to generate absurd recommendations. (That’s a fun class exercise for teaching people to be thoughtful and creative about rules.) I want to say something like this: the GR is an excellent pithy saying but a godawful practical rule.

      That thought is based on a pretty simple conception of the nature of and standards for practical rules: that their proper use is like this: you do what the rule says to do. That is, you find in the rule a description of a kind of action or activity to perform (or omit), and you then do that. There’s an account of a genre or at least of its proper direct use.

      (Similarly: When Confucius gives one of his quick and unbalanced answers to e.g. “What is ren?”, what he gives is usually or always a terrible, i.e. wrong or false, definition of the virtue even for that interlocutor (if it makes any sense to speak of a definition as being false for someone). Still, we assume that his answer is an excellent pithy saying for that interlocutor, at least for a while.

      Maybe there’s no way to describe the genre of the pithy saying except by lists of what it is and isn’t.

      Anyway, what can we say about this genre? One might want to say that the meaning of a pithy saying is just in whatever trying to live by it does to one’s life, and then evaluate pithy sayings in just the sort of way that one tests drugs: watch and compare what happens to the people who do and don’t use them, such as oneself. But that approach presupposes some conception of what counts as using them, and for me that’s really the big question. (What counts as living by the Golden Rule?)

      Maybe it’s as simple as this: a pithy saying is indeed e.g. an account of a virtue, or a putative moral rule (or whatever), but with these caveats: that it is understood to be vague, and that for application it is supposed to be interpreted with much charity.

      But that account seems to me unsatisfactory. It’s dangerously close to saying that a pithy saying is any short sentence interpreted to mean whatever you happen to think anyway. And it doesn’t seem to capture at all the way the Golden Rule works. I think much of the Golden Rule’s proper operation is to get us to look at things – at what we’re thinking of doing – from the point of view of other people. It directs us to a certain kind of imaginative exercise, which hopefully becomes habitual. But that’s not what it says on its face to do, no matter how vaguely and charitably we read it.

      Your point about perceptual training suggests that the core of at least some pithy sayings might be a list of things to attend to, so that the genre Pithy Saying would be kin to the genre Checklist. One thinks of “主忠信,” Zengzi’s list of three questions to ask himself every day, etc.

      One kind of fairly direct use of a pithy saying is to broadcast it: to identify with it publicly. In LY 15.6 we’re told that Zizhang wrote a saying or two on his sash. (Today we might use a tee-shirt or a tattoo.) Was the public identification with the saying merely an unintended side-effect? Was it merely that one didn’t conceive language as private? Or do we here see that identifying publicly with a saying is a main part of what people thought of when they thought of adopting a saying?

      I think 14.13 is interesting in this connection. In Legge’s translation, thanks to the Chinese Text Project:

      The Master asked Gong Ming Jia about Gong Ming Wen, saying, “Is it true that your master speaks not, laughs not, and takes not?” Gong Ming Jia replied, “This has arisen from the reporters going beyond the truth. My master speaks when it is the time to speak, and so men do not get tired of his speaking. He laughs when there is occasion to be joyful, and so men do not get tired of his laughing. He takes when it is consistent with righteousness to do so, and so men do not get tired of his taking.” The Master said, “So! But is it so with him?”

      It appears that there is a terse saying abroad about Gong Ming Wen, perhaps promulgated by the man himself. On its face it isn’t a moral rule or a definition of a virtue; rather it’s a description of an individual. But announcing it might play the same sort of role as writing a pithy rule or definition on one’s sash.

      I think Youzi is talking about the publicity of sayings in LY 1.13 when he writes “信近於義,言可復也.” Here’s what I wrote in my Youzi paper: “In the milieu of the Analects, leadership and moral aspiration both involved maxims, or professions of values (often called yan 言, Youzi’s term here). Hence [this line] suggests an analogy. If a trustworthy person declares an intention now, what she says is worthy of being noted and repeated by others; for she adopts only words she can keep over time, intentions she will keep even when new days bring new concerns. She lives as though her words will come back to her. Similarly, a just person’s maxims are worthy of adoption by others; for she adopts only maxims that are acceptable from all standpoints, hence acceptable to her even should she find herself on the other side of the relationship in question (cf. Daxue 10.2). She lives as though her words will come back to her. ¶ Borrower today, debtor tomorrow; winner today, loser tomorrow. Checking our plans against the concerns of other days teaches us to check our plans against the concerns of other people. Keeping our word teaches us to be just by teaching us to speak and think from a more objective standpoint. But the duties of trustworthiness are of course narrower and more concrete than the whole of the just.”

      So publicity may be a crucial part of at least the early Chinese genre of pithy sayings.

      I wonder whether Zhu Xi mentions publicity in connection with his advice about memorizing and repetitive reading. (I have a copy of Learning to be a Sage handy.)

      Comment by I don't really mean it | November 8, 2011 | Reply

      • That’s actually from Bill Haines

        Comment by Bill Haines | November 8, 2011 | Reply

      • The Youzi should have been a giveaway. But there was the chance it was someone influenced by your Youzi article…

        Comment by Manyul Im | November 8, 2011 | Reply

        • Ha Ha Ha.

          Comment by Bill Haines | November 8, 2011 | Reply

  2. You’re making this harder on yourself than it needs to be. Go to any small town. Find the crappy second tier chain bookstore in the strip mall by the movie theater (Books-a-Million, for example). Look at the “Philosophy” section. What do you find? Hmmm… It’s all “How to Win at Business Like Sunzi!” “Confucius Says: 500 Ancient Business Secrets!!” “Get Better at Golf with the Tao Te Ching!!!!” and maybe one tattered old copy of Augustine. Many middle managers want to learn “Eastern Philosophy,” so they can succeed at business. And to be honest, that’s not much different than how a lot of it was meant back in the day. Early Chinese philosophy was meant to be practical. It doesn’t take a lot of work to bring out its practical side today. Just replace every reference to 君子 with “boss” and 臣 with “employee” and the future MBAs will flock to your course. 😉

    Comment by Carl | November 3, 2011 | Reply

    • Hehe.

      Comment by Joel Dietz (@fractastical) | November 4, 2011 | Reply

  3. I lean slightly toward Carl’s attitude — but not entirely. I think there’s two audiences here that shouldn’t be collapsed together: undergraduate students and philosophy departments (or, Asian studies departments for that matter). Chinese philosophy is probably an easy sell to most undergraduate students; they don’t tend to have too many initial qualms about the categorization, even if they have a couple of philosophy classes notched. In my experience, they might have questions or be frustrated about the difficulty of some of the text because they aren’t sure how to begin interpreting it. But generally, they find it fascinating. Departmental colleagues, of course, are a different audience. They may well have disciplinary assumptions that they bring to the material and may decide that there isn’t really enough philosophically interesting or rigorous prose to warrant a course in it. Or, if we’re talking about non-philosopher Asianists, they may think the category of “philosophy” is a particularly bad imposition of Western genre on literature that could be classified more reasonably. So, I think it matters who we’re worried about here.

    Comment by Manyul Im | November 3, 2011 | Reply

    • Or maybe we’re worried about Ivy League undergraduates only — of which I have no experience — who are more inclined to have the kinds of concerns that philosopher or Asianist colleagues would have. In my experience with state university students — both at a Cal State and at University of Oklahoma — and with those at my current Jesuit university, Chinese philosophy isn’t so hard to pitch.

      Comment by Manyul Im | November 3, 2011 | Reply

    • I think this is an apt distinction, Manyul. My students at Wesleyan—perhaps even especially the philosophy majors who take my classes—tend to be very welcoming of what they see as distinct and refreshing approaches to philosophy. Asian studies students are occasionaly put off by the rigor of the broadly philosophical way in which we approach the texts–for most of them, a class with me is their first-ever philosophy class–but this is less a “disciplinary” issue than one about academic training in analytical and/or argumenative writing. (And I’m a hard grader 🙂 )

      Comment by Steve Angle | November 3, 2011 | Reply

      • I’ve had similar experiences. Philosophy majors and minors tend to do have a great deal of interest coming in and tend to do well once the course is underway, whereas it is a bit of a struggle for the Asian studies / history students, who come in with very little (if any) philosophical training and must therefore get used to the habit of evaluating ideas (as opposed to describing them). By the time we’re done with the first thinker (Confucius), they tend to catch on though.

        Comment by hagop sarkissian | November 3, 2011 | Reply

    • Interesting that you slightly lean towards my opinion, because I agree with you completely. 😉 Contemporary American philosophy departments have a hard enough time believing that there can be “real philosophy” in Europe or before Russell. Real Philosophy in China? Unbelievable.

      Comment by Carl | November 4, 2011 | Reply

      • Is that a statement of defeat?

        Comment by Joel Dietz (@fractastical) | November 4, 2011 | Reply

  4. Many interesting thoughts here, Joel. My experience at three different schools (University of Toronto, Duke, and here at CUNY) has been that a course in Chinese philosophy is an easy sell. Admittedly, Toronto and New York are very multicultural cities with large east Asian populations, so a good deal of the seats in these courses are filled with students of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese backgrounds. Nonetheless, I’d be surprised if there is a problem at the consumer end.

    This is a separate issue, of course, from another you bring up, which pertains to a reluctance by some schools to offer positions in Chinese philosophy in their philosophy departments. My hunch is that such reluctance does not come from any concerns that the courses will *sell*. Instead, departments often have pressing needs to fill slots in core areas in Western thought, and these take priority over giving a position to someone specializing in Asian philosophy.

    A point of clarification: my sense is that many schools–including Ivy league schools–do in fact offer courses in Asian or Chinese philosophy, but just not as part of their Philosophy offerings. Are you putting these aside Joel?

    Comment by hagop sarkissian | November 3, 2011 | Reply

    • I think these are actually three very different issues which should probably be treated separately despite the fact that they are all related to pedagogy in some way.

      The first is the appeal to students. I actually don’t know that there is any significant problem here. I doubt any of the professors that I’ve had thought of this as a problem. At times I simply wished for more challenging intellectual engagement in the classroom, but this also true in the many philosophy courses which I took. I simply included it because it was in the back of my mind and, in general, I’d like to alternate between popular classes with a large audience and smaller more intimate dissections of material.

      The second is the potential to teach Eastern philosophy in philosophy departments. I’m not actually really privy to all of the considerations there but I assume that, in general, it is simply a product of doing things the way that they have been done before. I believe it is possible for a philosophy department to formulate a new, hopefully more comprehensive vision without diluting content for the sake of weak sense of diversity. In many ways, I would actually advocate against lumping Eastern philosophy into departments until there was an established methodology for doing so — and everything I’ve read on the nature of Chinese philosophy indicates that there is not. In fact, I think many of the advocates of Chinese philosophy are great offenders in this regard since they try to get included on the basis of diversity quotas and not by the quality of their thought (for example, I was particularly appalled by Chad Hansen’s appeal to “folk” philosophy in the great ideograph debate).

      The second leads right to the third, which is the lack of a rigorous, philosophically compelling vision of how or what Chinese philosophy adds to the Western canon. This is a massive topic about which I happen to have very strong opinions. Most notably, I think that despite an appropriate focus on pre-Socratics in Heideggerian influenced post-metaphysical thought, we’ve been side-tracked by Nietzsche and essentially destroyed the possibility of any philosophy worthy of the name. Metaphysics, with accompaniment by epistemology, is, in a very real sense, philosophy in the proper sense. I personally believe that Pythagoras and a strong conception of mathematical reality made possible both Socrates and Plato, and virtually all philosophy as we know it today. Consequently, I find this to be a matter of logical necessity as I believe (in someways mirroring Benoit Mandelbrot) that we find the most interesting mathematical patterns in nature and, as we abstract, find them also in patterns of human thought (I find J Henderson, S Farmer, and M. Witzel’s work on syncretic philosophical development and neurobiology in many facets compelling). This sort of approach I believe provides some possibility of accounting for human universals, hopefully including aesthetic and devotional components to such.

      Sadly, I think that instead of providing this vision many academics of the past half-century have instead attempted to answer the question of why science didn’t evolve in China, which I am interested in insofar as it illustrates how, absent a strong definitional core (e.g. understanding what science is and is not) how divergent and ultimately useless many of these attempts can be. In fact, I cannot read them without thinking (sadly!) that Sinology a field is deserving of little respect from those engaged in other subject fields. Perhaps, and this is an open query to academics in the field, you don’t feel marginalized in such a way — but I certainly had this sense that much of philosophical exploration as approached was irrelevant to the great problems of our era (the Leviathan, etc.).

      Hope that helps answer your question!

      Comment by Joel Dietz (@fractastical) | November 6, 2011 | Reply

      • I’m surprised at your impression that the field’s advocates mostly make diversity arguments for including Chinese philosophy in philosophy curricula. Who’s doing this? Your one example is Hansen, but I can’t see the relevance of his claim that there are cultural differences in how people think about language and writing.

        And I’m puzzled by the idea that we need a grand theory of how to include Chinese philosophy in philosophy curricula before doing it, and even more puzzled by the idea that the grand theory should focus on the mathematical structure of human thought. (Maybe I’m misreading your comment?) Is there even a single example of a previously western-only philosophy department including Chinese philosophy because of a grandiose theory?

        I’m also pretty sure I’ve never experienced a conversation about Chinese philosophy getting taken over by the question of “why science didn’t evolve in China.” (Evolve?)

        Comment by Dan Robins | November 8, 2011 | Reply

        • I’ve been thinking about this for the last month — I suppose at the end I must simply admit I’m not sure why some philosophy departments include non-Western forms of philosophy and some do not. There must be some set of historical reasons here, but I don’t know quite what they are.

          Comment by Joel Dietz | December 18, 2011 | Reply

  5. Indeed, in a recent course providing an introduction to Chinese classical thought at the University of Pennsylvania, it was unclear what if any, Ivy League institutions, besides the University of Pennsylvania and Brown University offer such a course (presumably others do, and it would be delightful to know the details).

    I know Michael Puett’s course at Harvard entitled “Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory” had over 400 students last fall.

    Comment by Agui | November 5, 2011 | Reply

    • Puett has a special magic perhaps, one that I personally hope to emulate 😉

      Comment by Joel Dietz (@fractastical) | November 6, 2011 | Reply

  6. It might be more accurate to say that many departments in America are open to Asian and Chinese Philosophy depending on how open-minded the faculty members teaching there – so far as I know, big schools like Penn State University and Vanderbilt University have Asian Philosophy courses offered in the philosophy department… I myself taught a couple of courses in Asian Philosophy when a graduate student at Penn State… It is true that no faculty member in philosophy at Penn State has expertise in Chinese or Asian Phil, but they are just open to the idea of Asian Philosophy course, which was offered regularly (by whoever is interested in exploring the idea)…

    Comment by Huaiyu Wang | November 5, 2011 | Reply

  7. I quote:

    “Curiously although not surprisingly, texts which did not contain any obvious philosophizing were generally neglected. This was most prominent with the Book of Changes, the Book of Odes, and Classic of Rites (禮記), all of which are extremely important. Despite strengths in other areas, I personally believe this method of teaching the Confucian tradition renders it somewhat sterile. Confucius would probably have much preferred that students a couple thousand years continue memorizing the odes than carefully reading attributed sayings that he apparently made very little effort to put down into writing (besides hiding them in his house, of course)… Confucian tradition.”

    Let me first applaud you for saying this.

    礼记 is my favourite book amongst the Classics (although technically perhaps a 传 rather than a 经). In my view, 礼运 is a synopsis of Confucianism. It explains where it came from, why it came about, etc.

    What is particularly important is to give students an inside view of Confucianism – e.g. How Confucians understand themselves. The way to do this is:

    (1) Explain the 经史子集 system, esp. the various organisations of Classics, such as 六经、十三经、四书五经.
    (2) Explain the traditional attributions of the Classics, e.g. Why Confucius wrote 春秋.
    (3) Explain the lineages of the Classics up to the Han Dynasty, e.g. the New Text vs. Old Text conflict. This will necessarily lead to 韩诗外传、毛笺 and other commentaries.

    One is an outsider to Confucianism until one understands the conflict between New Text and Old Text. This brings in question such as “Who was Confucius” in a Confucian sense rather than an academic sense.

    Also important is the historical symbolism involved. 尧舜、三王、春秋 are not mere historical facts in Confucianism. Instead, they are heavily imbued with symbolic values.

    In 刘师培’s 经学教科书, the first half of the book was spent on subjects (1), (2) and (3). While it’s not necessary to know the lineages by heart, one should at least know where to find information on them. Without understanding the traditional attributions, one has no understanding of the significance of a book. Consequently, one cannot even hope to approach it in the right way.

    There are a variety of other books like 史记 and 国语 which have high supplementary value. 史记 is particularly important, because it is modeled after 春秋. If one reads 史记, then one will understand how Confucians traditionally understood themselves.

    Comment by Justice&Mercy | November 7, 2011 | Reply

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